Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Calling on Congress

Jamal Khashoggi of was a journalist working for the Washington Post when he was ambushed and assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. It was immediately clear that the murder was ordered by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. It was less clear how the United States government would react.

Almost immediately, the president of the United States began offering alternative theories and excuses, but the evidence that one of his key allies was involved was overwhelming, and his efforts to postpone taking a stand eventually ran out. This happened over the weekend, when the CIA confirmed what we all knew about the killing. The president dismissed, demurred, and finally declared his real opinion on the matter: he simply does not care that his allies killed this journalist. The economic relationship with Saudi Arabia and its alliance against Iran are more important, he said, than the death of this journalist.

To be fair, he is not the first U.S. president to prioritize economic considerations over human rights when it comes to the Saudi royal family and similarly-situated despots. It has been the norm for generations of our leaders, in fact. The difference this time arises from several factors: the extreme cruelty of the killing, the targeting of a journalist, the president's ongoing rhetorical support for such targeting, the abuse of the sanctity of consular spaces, and most importantly the ongoing killing in Yemen.

Saudi citizen Khashoggi was killed because he was critical of the war on Yemen. "Standing with" Saudi Arabia in this context means continuing to condone and support the most egregious war crimes, while again signaling that the killing of journalists will be tolerated by this president.

Further, the economic interests that have clouded the judgment of previous U.S. pale in comparison to the personal financial interests that motivate the current president. The emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution was written specifically to ensure that the president's first allegiance would be to this country and its values.

Fortunately, members of Congress in both parties have spoken out strongly against the recent statements by president and his Secretary of State, and have rightly pointed to the influence of the odious John Bolton, who always seems to advocate the most dangerous and inhumane course of action. Of course, all of the critics in the president's own party have spoken like this before, and after a single news cycle they have returned to giving the president whatever he wants.

This time it is important to show Congress that the president does not speak for his country on this issue; that we do not stand with the Saudi royal family. For this reason, I have written to my own member of Congress, and I hope others will do the same. Below is the full text of the letter I sent to Rep. Stephen Lynch late last night. Some members are already starting to organize just such investigations; they will need encouragement to keep at it.

Dear. Rep. Lynch:

I am writing to ask that you use whatever investigative tools you and your colleagues may have available to investigate the involvement of the Trump administration and/or the extended Trump family in the brutal killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

At a minimum, the president's constant verbal assaults on the media may have given the Saudi royal family the impression (apparently correct) that the administration would condone whatever cruelty they carried out on this poor man. It seems also quite possible that some intelligence about Mr. Khashoggi was shared with the regime.

Whether there was any cooperation before the fact, the president has behaved very much like an accessory after the fact of this killing, doing all he could to protect the Saudi royal family.

Today he has asserted that his support for the Saudi regime is about greater economic and security concerns. Given his numerous business connections to the family, this is implausible, and an insult to the intelligence of the American people. I hope you will investigate whether his misplaced loyalty constitutes a gross breach of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

If the Congress does not confront the president in the strongest of terms, I fear for the safety of journalists both abroad and at home. Five were brutally murdered in my old home town of Annapolis, one credibly threatened in Boston, and more attacked with pipe bombs, all by individuals who believed themselves to be carrying out the intentions of the president. In each case, he has been very reluctant to correct their impressions.

For these reasons, I believe that the Khashoggi case is not only a tragedy and a moral affront, but also an existential crisis for our country. I hope investigations can be pursued vigorously. Meanwhile, I hope that the Congress can make it clear that the country does NOT stand with the Saudi regime.

Thank you for your consideration.

Friday, October 12, 2018

This Way or the Highway?

Followers of this blog (see especially my 2017 Unicorn Cult post) and innocent bystanders to my various rantings will know that I am more than a little dubious about the powers of markets to solve problems in the real world.

I was therefore surprised by my own reaction to journalist Kara Miller's conversation with urban-planning professor Michael Manville, in which he offers a market-based approach to the pernicious problem of traffic.

Related links are on the Innovation Hub's blog post for this story.

The conversation begins with laments about traffic from person-on-the-street interviews in Chicago and Atlanta -- two cities in which I have spent hours stuck in their legendary traffic jams and in which it was easy to find ordinary people with extraordinarily strong feelings on the subject. Their discussion includes cogent description of the environmental, health, and economic costs of congestion. It then turns to things that have been tried -- adding capacity, improving public transit, high-density development -- and examples of places that have done these extremely well without putting a dent in traffic.

What to do? Professor Manville argues that congestion results from underpriced capacity. At first this sounds like the nonsense I heard from economists when I first started studying deforestation in the Amazon. The difference is that Manville's argument arises from a carefully defined notion of capacity and a feasible means of adjusting its price; neither of these obtained in the vague free-market pronouncements I was hearing about the Amazon.

His analysis recognizes the importance of a characteristic of traffic that is not obvious from casual observation: the relationship between traffic count (number of cars) and congestion (average speed) is non-linear. Double traffic on a nearly empty road at midnight, and travel time is not affected at all. Double it again, and slowing might be minimal. Eventually, though, traffic will be running at something close to its capacity, beyond which an increase of just a few cars might slow traffic dramatically. Average speeds might drop from 60 to 15 with the addition of just 5 percent more cars. To get a 4x improvement in travel time, we do not need 4x capacity or to remove 3/4 of the cars. Getting just 5 percent of cars off the road at a peak time would be sufficient.

A related insight is his reference to roads as real estate. Driving a car is like renting a moving piece of land measuring about 0.002 acre. We are used to paying rent if we park the car -- maybe the equivalent of thousands of dollars per acre per day. But when the car is moving, we rarely pay rent. And if we do, that rent is the same any time of day.

What Manville suggests is that this rent should fluctuate with its real value -- quite low or even zero when traffic is light, but quite high as a road reaches capacity. He draws compelling comparisons to other situations in which supply is kept available by flexible pricing, and he makes quite a bit of sense. He addresses questions of equity in two ways: first, he points out that there is already a great deal of inequity involved in transportation. It is already much more comfortable to travel as a rich person than as a not-rich person.

Second, he suggests that it is common for the rich who pay premiums for convenience to be subsidizing the poor. This is where the actual application of his ideas should receive the most careful attention. For example, revenue from the peak-time charges could be applied to public transit or to information technologies that would make it easier for average-income commuters to time-shift.

Attitude Adjustment

I had my first encounter with this concept in 2016, in a story from my home town, Washington, D.C. This photo was circulating, showing an extraordinary (to my thinking) toll on a toll lane parallel to the public highway my father took to work when I was a kid.
My reaction -- which I posted online -- was mistaken. I assumed that this was a private alternative to the public road, simply a way for the rich to opt out of congestion and for companies to profit from what should be a public service.

This was before I learned the general lesson of reading things more carefully before posting about or sharing them, and long before the more specific lesson of how these are supposed to work. The Washington Post article highlights a couple of key considerations. First, a vehicle with just one extra passenger would pay no toll at all. Second, the tolls are collected by the public agency that managed the highway. Third, the tolls are updated every 6 minutes, providing the dynamism that Professor Manville was proposing, but the price shifts are so dynamic that drivers sometimes swerve out of their lanes at the last minute to avoid them. Causing more congestion.

For this approach to work, it seems, a way must be found for pricing to be sufficiently dynamic while also being communicated in a way that does not yield sudden surprises.

Whatever one concludes about this approach to traffic control, Professor Manville's work -- and his discussion of it with journalist Kara Miller -- are excellent examples of the spatial thinking that is central to modern geography.

Monday, October 08, 2018

No Line for Home

Who deserves to call a place home? This was a good day for Tanzina Vega to discuss the question with Jose Antonio Vargas and Julissa Arce, who have lived as undocumented Americans. Vargas, in fact, still does.
I had the privilege of hearing him speak in Bridgewater a couple of years ago, and look forward to reading his new book.
For those who suggest "getting in line" to claim their home country, they explain that there is no line.
Deborah Berenice Vasquez-Barrios and her son Kenner after he delivered his remarks at the St. Paul & St. Andrew Methodist Church in New York (AP photo via The Takeaway)

Monday, October 01, 2018

Balún: Sleep While Dancing

Photo by way of PopGun
I had not heard of the Puerto Rico-Brooklyn band until yesterday, when I caught this interview on the NPR program Studio 360 (which gave credit to Latino USA for the original story).

The interview centers on the construction of the band's signature "dreambow" rhythms, particularly in the band's new song El Espanta. Angélica Negrón describes what she sees as the therapeutic value of this approach. I found it both enjoyable and instructive to listened to that song a few times before returning to the interview.

The video of Balún's La Nueva Ciudad is an example of what the artists mean by dreambow, and is a perfect example of Negrón's expression "sleep while dancing." The lyrics describe a progressively more complicated metaphorical connection between the narrator and the stars, as her head, throat, and legs represent a telescope. The chorus laments a growing distance from a human subject.

The longer video "Full Episode" is instructive because viewers can watch just how careful the band is with the gradual layering of rhythms. As they sit in their hotel room, we can watch both old-school shakers and high-tech electronic drums being added in delicate increments. Negrón's use of an old-school accordion, however, reminds us that this so-modern group has deep roots in Latinx music.

Finally, the video version of Teletransporte connects the hypnotic sound to an equally hypnotic, two-dimensional geometric experience.


In looking for information about the music, I found an interview with the Brooklyn musical collective PopGun Presents in the form of a listicle. Members of Balún share their five favorite Puerto Rican bands and relief organizations. (I have written elsewhere on this blog about the ongoing need for relief on what should be our 52nd state.)

That search led me to a possible origin story for the band's name. I welcome corrections from those who might actually know, but the possibility that the band is named for the electronic device balun (balance-unbalance) is too cool to ignore.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Rachel Carson's Third Wave

Rachel Carson (1907 to 1964) birdwatching at Woods Hole, Massachusetts,
where she began her work as a biologist.
Image: Rachel Carson Council by way of The Wildlife Society.
SPOILER ALERT: I learned something so surprising from the radio segment below that I recommend listening to it (about 18 minutes) before reading my comment. It's OK. I'll wait.
OK. Welcome back.

Did you find Rachel Carson Dreams of the Sea as interesting as I did? I hope so. As is so often the case, I heard part of this New Yorker Radio Hour piece while I was doing some errands. The timing was perfect, because I am re-reading Silent Spring with my students, with whom I recently watched the American Experience documentary about the writing and publication of that book. It is a wonderful hour-long biographical treatment that I think compliments the book perfectly, putting it in context and making clear its historic significance.

I was drawn into this piece by its description of the first wave of Rachel Carson's work, which was her writing about the marine environment. I knew that her fame arose from her writings about the life of the oceans, but I never understood what had made her work so distinctive. She spent a great deal of time paying very close attention to the life around her through careful observation. As with Henry David Thoreau a century before, it was patient, repeated observation over time that allowed her to draw inferences that others might have missed.  What seems to have made the first wave of her work particularly effective, however, was her attention to the relationships among all of the lifeforms she studied. She was in this sense a pioneering ecologist, something a bit more expansive than a naturalist.

The second wave of Rachel Carson's work, of course, was Silent Spring, in which she made the science of biochemistry accessible to the general public while being the first effective critic of what had become a completely unbridled approach to the development and application of pesticides.

The third wave of her work -- the "spoiler" I mention above -- would have been the research she was beginning to do on global climate change. She died from breast cancer on April 18, 1964, just as she was beginning to understand a pattern of warming in her own observations of various coastal waters. She was born on May 27, 1907 (sharing a birthday with my favorite librarian), which means that had she not succumbed to cancer, she could have been part of James Hansen's team when it published the first paper on climate change in 1981. More likely, in fact, that work of atmospheric scientists would have been read by a public already familiar with the problem from her biologist's point of view. As historian Jill Lepore observes in the radio piece, it is actually sad to realize how much Rachel Carson understood about climate change, because we know she might very well have been able to do something about it.

Lagniappe: Today's Context

I chose to begin my class on environmental regulations with the study of Rachel Carson because I am offering the course during a political season in which both the President and the Congress of the United States have set about destroying environmental protections that previous occupants of their offices enacted, in large part as a result of her work.

While writing this very post, for example, I learned that the government is reducing oversight of its own nuclear-weapons production facilities. As I explained in my posts Calice and Secretary NIMBY, the reckless approach to nuclear weapons is part of a much broader assault on environmental protections of all kinds. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently posted a must-watch video about the dangers of an even broader pattern of deregulation that is reversing progress in every segment of our society.

When the U.S. is ready to repair the damage currently being done, my students will be in a position to help. Meanwhile they can join with others who are working to protect the environment through state, local, private, and international efforts.

Please see my previous posts related to Rachel Carson, mostly the "second wave" of her legacy:
Rachel Carson Experience (2012)
Ruby Exposed, about the need for ongoing vigilance regarding pesticides (2014)
A Good Read on a Vital Topic, about the work of Carl Safina, the closest thing we have to a living Rachel Carson (2015)
Monarch Highway, about one of Rachel Carson's favorite insects (2015)
Donde Voy, which is about my other hero, Tish Hinojosa (2017)
Beatriz at Dinner, featuring yet another hero, Salma Hayek (2017)
Cancer and the Environment, with a link to the organization working on Cape Cod in Rachel Carson's name (2010)

Sunday, September 02, 2018


I started my Sunday with this discussion between journalist Guy Raz and volcanologist Andrés Ruzo, whose childhood conversations at home led him to an amazing discovery in the Amazon Basin of Peru. (Because it contains have of the basin, Brazil is the best-known of the Amazon countries, but several upstream neighbors also have vast tracts of the basin and its forests.)

I recommend listening to the audio and then watching Dr. Ruzo's full TED Talk, given in 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. His story begins with curiosity, legend, and history. It provides insight into indigenous knowledge, geothermal science, ecology, and the concept of ecotourism.

It even touches on coffee! And from the TED Radio summary, I learn of Dr. Ruzo's coffee connection. In addition to growing up in Peru, part of his childhood was near volcanoes in Nicaragua, which means he is not far removed from coffeelands.
Andrés Ruzo has written his story in The Boiling River

Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Post

In the United States, we do not elect kings. The Framers of the Constitution had been living in a monarchy, and they crafted the balance of powers among three branches of government to preclude its return. They did not foresee the advent of Sen. Mitch McConnell -- who does not share their vision -- but they did seem to understand that an additional protection was needed. Thus, in order to check the excesses of the three branches, they included protection of the Fourth Estate -- the press -- in the very First Amendment to their carefully written work. It is the only profession mentioned in the document.

The patriotism of those who put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard or stylus to smartphone) is at least as important to the protection of the republic as are that of those who put on any of the uniforms of the armed services. This is true of local journalists such as those assassinated in Annapolis this summer and those threatened by a terrorist in Boston more recently. Neither man was motivated solely by the current president, but both cited his constant anti-journalist rhetoric. They cited his incitement, as it were. The second perpetrator was released on very low bail, providing some insight into the sincerity of our nation's "war on terror" rhetoric.

All of which makes this a timely time to watch The Post, which celebrates the publication of the Pentagon Papers -- eventually as a book but initially as a blizzard of articles in dozens of newspapers.

The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg with a night patrol in Vietnam. As I watched the inevitable ambush, I said, "Why did anybody think this would work?" Which of course was the entire point of the story. Secretary McNamara knew that the war could not be won, and he was determined to keep this a secret, as was the monarchical Nixon.

Without the courage of the men and women of the Post, the war might still be going on, and Nixon might still be president. (That last bit is hyperbole, especially since he is dead. But he was very crafty.)

The words of three men stood out as I watched the film, though it was the personal and professional courage of publisher Kay Graham (played masterfully by Meryl Streep) that was most pivotal.

When told that the Post might be shut down for publishing the papers, Executive Editor Ben Bradley (as played by Tom Hanks) replied, "If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist."

Writing for the 6-3 majority that ruled in favor of the Post, Associate Justice Hugo Black declared:
"The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

Following his defeat, the imperious Nixon  (as played by Curzon Dobell) is heard to say -- just as his operatives are perpetrating a burglary a mile to the west -- "No reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again." Clearly he had not taken the words of Justice Black to heart: the press does not serve at his pleasure.

Burying the Survivors

Photo: Geoffrey Scott Baker, resident of nearby Oella who calls Ellicott City his muse
I remember this riddle from middle school days -- "If a plane crashes on the U.S.-Canada border, where would they bury the survivors?" The punchline, of course, is that you don't bury survivors.

I was reminded of this when reading Ambitious Ellicott City flood prevention plan would tear down 19 buildings in historic downtown, by Baltimore Sun journalists Sarah Meehan and Jess Nocera. The headline is an accurate summary of what Howard County officials have proposed in response to the devastating floods of July 2016 (see my Flood Flash and and Flood Peak articles) and May 2018 (Flooding: It's Not in the Cards).

The headline hints at some of the problems with the response of county officials. The plan is indeed ambitious, in the way that Al Capone was ambitious at banks: it contemplates obliterating the victims. The financial cost to be paid by the county would be high, but the businesses that have rebuilt in the "flood zone" would not survive in new locations. They thrive because of the "sense of place" to which they have contributed for years or decades.

The plan announcement seeks to downplay the impact of the demolition by pointing out that 5 percent of the historic district would be affected, and this map with much less than 1 percent in red reinforces (and exaggerates) that message. Everyone who cares about the place, however, knows that this is the most important road segment on the map, or indeed in the entire county.

Moreover, the removal of buildings in the path of the flood waters will not "prevent" flooding. As detailed in the Preservation Maryland Statement on Ellicott City Demolition Proposal, the county's plan merely moves victims out of the way but does not even include study of the radically altered upstream hydrology that has driven the floods.
Main Street Ellicott City -- A walkable downtown with arts, history, architecture, cuisine, and coffee
The story is a reminder that climate change is leaving less room for error in many of our decisions about the environment. In this case, decisions about land use that would normally have made flooding quantitatively worse are now making it qualitatively worse -- a threshold has been crossed into an entirely new type of flood risk.


I have to admit that -- like many people from this part of Maryland -- I take the woes of Ellicott City personally. I have been a customer in most of the buildings slated for demolition, and my favorite librarian and I bought wedding gifts for each other in Discoveries.
Discoveries, around the anniversary of the 2016 flood. We tried to go again in May 2018, but downtown was thriving and we could not find a parking space. We were actually glad to see that. The next day, it was destroyed by a disaster resulting from climate change and poor land-use planning upstream.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Environmental Letters

I found this image while browsing for something to represent the idea of environmental regulations from the point of view of what the regs are meant to protect. It is from a short video in which the Canadian NGO West Coast Environmental Law makes a strong case for citizen participation in the details of environmental protection. 
Environmental Planning
Tom Daniels
Since I was hired to teach environmental geography in 1997, I have taught Environmental Regulations about once every alternate year. It had an even wonkier title when I first arrived, but the simple title to which I changed it reflects the applied (as opposed to theoretical) approach I take in the course.

More than anything else I teach, this course provides students with skills and knowledge that have direct workforce application. It is the course that draws most directly on my non-academic work in geography -- a single year between graduate programs in which I worked for what was then the world's largest civil and environmental engineering firm: Dames & Moore.

Combined with environmental courses in geography and other disciplines, this course helps all students who take it better understand how humans interact with the environment through the nitty-gritty of policy implementation. Some find related employment -- perhaps after some graduate study -- in government agencies or consulting firms. Incidentally, I would love to have more students from our business school take this course, since many firms now integrate environmental compliance into mission-centered positions such as inventory control.

One of those alumni helped me to find a new text for the course, as the one I had been using was becoming both dated and quite expensive (out-of-date textbooks gain value in warehouses faster than most financial instruments). The massive volume by Tom Daniels includes some land-management concepts that I cover in a different course, but most of it is relevant to the scope of this course, which has been the regulations that flow from major federal environmental-protection laws regarding hazardous waste and pollution.

At the beginning of the book is a lengthy -- but by no means exhaustive -- list of acronyms related to environmental planning and protection. These include such favorites as CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act -- better known as Superfund. I sometimes spell it $uperfund, because the mistakes of the past are VERY costly.

The acronyms are many because both the science and the legalities are complicated. This is not because bureaucrats enjoy complexity, but rather because every simple law to curtail pollution will be met with resistance that requires increasingly sophisticated methods to close potential loopholes. The so-called free market and common decency are not enough to make or keep the environment clean.

Enter JetPunk, a great example of how the business of naming companies has changed since the days of brick-and-mortar businesses. Company names related to those of the company's founding owners, its geographic location, or -- heaven forfend -- its actual product or service. Rather, it is trendy -- and a cheap way to signal one's trendiness -- to name a company by mashing together two unrelated words, such as "punk" and "jet."

I first became aware of JetPunk close to a decade ago, when a friend asked me to recommend online geography games for his kids. I enjoy the JetPunk map quizzes and use them with my own students. In fact, they figure prominently in the syllabus of the Advanced Global Thinking course I will begin offering next year. It seemed the perfect vehicle to help my enviro-regs students begin to learn some important acronyms, so I set about making a quiz for that purpose. I soon realized that there are A LOT of acronyms to learn, so I divided them thematically into three quizzes:

These overlap a bit, but serve to give my students -- and other interested learners -- manageable learning objects.

Lagniappe: The Context

This is the first time I have taught the course since the 2016 election, which has led to systematic efforts to dismantle environmental protections of all kinds at the Federal level. For this reason, I am grateful that the Daniels text is organized in a way that includes Federal programs but also details the work of state and local government as well as citizen-led organizations. All were important before, as the Federal programs have been far from perfectly effective, but are even more so in the coming months and years.

Even as I prepared these quizzes, several important reminders were making headlines. These relate to failures to protect the environment and public health even before 2016. In Michigan, a health official faces jail time over the failure to provide for clean water in Flint -- even as thousands of residents remain at risk. In Florida, failure to control nonpoint source pollutants has caused or enhanced dangerous blooms of both red tide and blue-green algae.

Looking at the environment more broadly, a recent report reminds us that in many parts of the world, environmental activism can be fatal. More optimistically, though, journalist Timothy Egan argues that broad attacks on longstanding environmental protections are likely to lead to a "Green Wave" in the November 2018 election. If so, my students will be well-positioned to help rebuild a fractured environmental infrastructure.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Nicaragua Update and Parallels

Journalist Carrie Kahn reports on legal measures that Nicaragua's increasingly authoritarian president has recently implemented to restrict dissent. In the guise of fighting terrorism, new laws appear to make free expression and free assembly even more difficult.

Ortega signals a willingness to continue ignoring human-rights organizations, the international community, the Catholic Church and to embolden a violent minority of Nicaraguans to commit atrocities in support of his regime.

For more details of how such a beautiful country arrived at such a terrible impasse so quickly, please see my #SOSnicaragua (May) and Nicaragua's Kent State (July) posts, as well as journalist Jon Lee Anderson's Fake News article, appearing in the current issue of the New Yorker. He describes Ortega's application of lessons learned from autocrates abroad.


Just as Ortega is intensifying his attacks on dissidence by branding protestors as terrorists, parallel strategies are emerging in the United States. While largely ignoring frequently violent white supremacists and allied fascist organizations, U.S. security forces are labeling their "antifa" opponents as terrorists.

It seems ludicrous to suggest that the United States could fall into a vortex such as the one that has engulfed Nicaragua, but the U.S. government is not currently signaling any contrary intent.

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