Thursday, March 26, 2015

Midnight at the Oasis

This photograph put two songs in my head at once: Midnight at the Oasis and Hotel California.
From The Daily Mail comes a nice photo essay about Huacachina, a genuine oasis in southern Peru. It is a reminder that if the name of a place or person seems unpronounceable, it probably just requires a careful second look. Sound out the name of this little town, and you will hear that it is actually a beautiful name -- it reminds me of the week my favorite librarian and I spent in Huaracondo, Peru last May. I must admit I never thought I would really learn that name, but now it rolls off the tongue (wok-a-CHEE-nah).

The photographs from Huacachina are fascinating, though one of them caused me to question just how isolated it is. The truth is more incredible than the false impression given by the story. It is hardly isolated at all, being located just on the outskirts of Ica, a city of 200,000 souls in a very dry part of Peru.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Unwelcome Irish

As I prepare the traditional (for Casa Hayes-Boh) mashed potato casserole, I think of two stories that highlight how much has changed in the 170 or so years since the Irish landed in the U.S. in great numbers.

The first comes from one of my favorite history writers, Kenneth C. Davis, who describes the Bible Riots of 1844, in which xenophobia and religious intolerance led to violence against Irish immigrants. He had also written more extensively about this in a 2010 Smithsonian article.
Of course the Irish eventually went on to be considered mainstream, but that required generations. It should not be surprising that in a war taking place in the same decade as the greatest Irish migration, more than a few Irish-American soldiers defected to the side of their Catholic brethren to the south. The result: the San Patricios soldiers are celebrated to this day in Mexico, though as individuals many ended in U.S. Army gallows.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Food Oasis

For several years, my students and I have been among those discussing food deserts. I mentioned it in my 2011 post Dignity Desert, about a KFC ad campaign that seemed at first to be a parody and in 2013 in Vertical Katrina. Some of my students and I have used the USDA Food Access Research Atlas to understand the spatial patterns of the problem, and more recently I have found that Feeding America is helping people not only to find information about food, but to find food itself.

Chef Ismael Samad
It is in this context that I read about Chef Ismael Samad, who is among a growing number of people taking creative, direct action to address the problem of a food availability in urban areas. I learned about his work while visiting rural Vermont, where I found a copy of vermont's LOCAL BANQUET in our room. Being interested in both food and food geography, I was glad to find it.

I was especially interested to see that Chef Samad -- trained as a chef and as an environmental biologist -- is helping to bring the energy of the gleaning movement to the problem of urban food availability.

The result is a restaurant set to open on Codman Square in Dorchester that will offer better food at a lower price than competing fast-food outlets. The Daily Table article emphasizes the fact that the gleaning movement is not about substandard food: it is about putting good food to good use, when it would otherwise be wasted. By using such food for about 60 to 70 percent of its ingredients, this new restaurant will offer casual meals or ingredients that facilitate healthy home cooking, at an attractive price.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ultimate Map Collector

If a ten-minute video about a map collection can bring a tear to your eye, it is this one. And if that happens, you might just be a geographer at heart. Please enjoy this video, and then read the rest of the story. Then learn much more about cities of the future from CITYLAB.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Slow-moving Disaster

Eastern Massachusetts has seen a succession of blizzards over the past month, resulting in many lost days of school and work, the ruination of regional public transportation (which had been operating with seriously deferred maintenance for decades), many traffic accidents, battles over already limited parking, and roof collapses, all with the added bonus of complaining and political finger-pointing.
Over 35,000 truckloads of snow have been removed from Boston, and it is still everywhere.
Image: WGBH
So it has been seriously inconvenient and even dangerous, and periodically over the past several weeks formal emergencies have been declared.

I had been wondering, however, whether the term "disaster" might apply, slow-moving though it may be in comparison to a wildfire, earthquake, or tornado event. Northeastern University engineering professor Ozlem Ergun recently moved to Boston (quite a welcome, Dr. Ergun!) and has been wondering the same thing. Specifically, she is an expert on debris, and made useful comparisons to post-earthquake Haiti during a discussion of our "Debris Event" on WGBH. Like me, she is also worried about what will happen when all of this snow melts. Specifically, she advocates planning for the debris that is likely to be liberated when all of this snow starts flowing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fires and Explosions? What Fires and Explosions?

In my honors class yesterday we were discussing, among other things, alternatives to fossil fuels. Renewable or perpetual sources such as wind and solar power engender some skepticism because they are considered new and untested. In pointing out that despite some limitations and possible inconveniences, they are inherently safer that our petroleum economy, I cited recent tanker-train accidents such as the explosion last week in West Virginia, which also spilled oil into a local river.  I mentioned it in comparison to the far worse petroleum explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in which the downtown was destroyed and 43 people were killed.

None of the students had heard of either event.

The good news is that they were more stunned than I was that two such important stories had escaped their notice. These are honors students who had signed up for a class on climate change, and yet neither of these stories had penetrated the layers of distraction in which so many of us are shrouded.

We spoke briefly about Bread & Circus -- the attention diverted to everything that is not important, as I wrote about previously with respect to Bristol Palin in 2010 and WalMart in 2013.

Further good news; these students are now especially keen to pursue a more substantive media diet.


Atlantic reporter Derek Thompson writes that my students are far from alone in being disconnected from traditional news sources. Journalism in the Age of the Accidental News Junkie describes how social media has become both a platform and a filter for news, even as traditional reporting remains important as a point of origin.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Christo Negro | Diablo Blanco

As its name implies, the Public Radio International program The World is like a non-credit college of geography on the air. The February 20 broadcast included a story about Carnival in Rio, which might be expected, but it also included a reminder that Carnival is not limited to Rio and New Orleans.

Portobelo is a town on the north coast of Panama, in a province (Colón) named for Columbus. It is the site of a Carnival pageant that subverts conventional notions of race and religion. University of North Carolina professor and hip-hop artist Pierce Freelon describes how a tradition that includes the playful use of blackface is part of a complex critique of colonialism.

El Diablo in Portobelo

Monday, February 16, 2015

Designing for Joy

I enjoyed the Redesign for Joy segment on Studio 360 when I heard it on air yesterday, even before I realized that the story was going to include some specifically geographic examples. Most notable of these is the efforts of former Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, who was named World Mayor in 2004 for what is now a fairly obvious innovation. He demonstrated that more cheerful paint could improve his city; that work has now spread far beyond Albania, and I even witnessed some examples in Managua last month.
The first project. Photo by Edi Rama
His project started modestly, and the first example (above) could be described simply as "not dreary." From there the work became increasingly daring -- and increasingly effective. The one below is much like the building I noticed in Managua. See 8 Views of Tirana for details and further examples.
Photo: David Dufresne
A quick image search on Google yields even more examples, many of which are from other parts of the world where leaders have been inspired to employ positive design in their cities.

I return to the interview, though, because Ingrid Fetell shares something much more profound and exciting than the cityscapes, as important as they are. Her work connects cognitive science with design -- and careful attention to both -- in order to recognize the kinds of places that encourage joy, and to apply those insights to improving the design of places that typically do not. She shares this work on her Aesthetics of Joy blog, and is working with Studio 360 producers to solicit ideas for places that could use a joy treatment. See the interview summary for details. Meanwhile, bring yourself a bit of joy simply by listening!

While we are at it, though, we should not miss a chance to learn more about both the site and situation of Tirana. Use the "earth" and "map" settings and pan and zoom to explore Tirana to your heart's content.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When to Say "When"

A certain concentration of wealth is a good thing -- the wealthy and the aspiring wealthy assure us -- because it creates incentives. This is probably true. I really do not mind being a bit wealthier than I was at a younger age, and I know that my modest wealth allows me to provide for the employment of others. So sure, let's have a bit of wealth concentration.
Image: The Guardian
But how much would wealth need to be concentrated in order for it to be considered too concentrated? What if everyone in the world had a dollar a day, except for one guy who had everything else ... would that be too much? How close to that perverse scenario will our economy get before people object? Apparently, as close as it is now.

The graphic is similar to the Top Ten I shared recently in my Untenable Gap post, but is perhaps all the more dramatic because it is comparing two groups of people -- one about the size of a typical college calculus class and the other group number more than all of the people in the world outside of Asia.

That is:
people now have as much wealth as
people. It cannot proportional to differences in work ethic, cleverness, or even luck.

For the results to be this skewed, the game has to be rigged. Not rigged likc an underinflated football, but rigged like an entire political system that has been taken captive.

For readers not familiar with Oxfam, it is a British non-governmental organization (NGO) that not only studies poverty, but actively works on strategies to alleviate it. Oxfam has, for example, been a leader not only in promoting the fair-trade model, but also in holding it to a high standard. The same Oxfam Report responsible for the 80-vs-billions graphic also found that the "bottom 99 percent" control as much wealth as the top one percent on a global basis.

In other words, as of this evening, the top
people control as much wealth as the
of us at the bottom (apologies to my highly wealthy readers for not including you among "us" but the reasons may be evident).

According to the Global Rich List, as a mid-career professional in the United States, I'm actually in the upper echelons of that lower 99 percent, but the wealth of working people cannot compare to those who actually operate the levers of the world economy. I have tried to capture this distinction in the very simple graphic of my own, shown at right.

The 73 million at the top are shown in pink at the top, and control as much wealth as those shown below in yellow.

At the moment, it remains popular to brand as "socialist" any suggestion that this is not a viable balance, but the pendulum is swinging away from that view, as a growing number of people recognize that this is not "capitalism" either, if by that we mean an economic system that rewards ambition and hard work.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Whose Ethics?

A few stories about ethics have emerged in recent days, the juxtaposition of which has me wondering a bit about ethics rules, and who they are really for. To whit:

Dorchester teacher Nicole Bollerman won books for all of her students and $150,000 for herself as a result of a recent essay contest. SHE GAVE ALL OF THE PRIZE MONEY TO THE SCHOOL. Massachusetts is the only planet on which this could have raised any legal concerns, since "gifts" to public employees are limited to a $50. Hearing of the teacher's generosity (it is almost redundant to call a public school teacher "generous" these days, given their generally shabby treatment), comedian Ellen DeGeneres heard about her generosity and gave all the kids in the school another round of supplies, all the teachers gift cards for school supplies, and Bollerman another $25,000. Still, the ethics questions continue, though it is not clear by whom or to what purpose.

The Boston Globe's article about Bollerman makes a few interesting points. First, she gave away the original prize money despite the student loans that most professionals her age now carry, thanks to the refusal of legislatures to continue funding higher education at the levels they had enjoyed. Second, Ellen's $500 gifts to teachers are being questioned, while the common practice of teachers spending that kind of money on school supplies is not.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Stoughton, it has recently come to light that superintendent Marguerite Rizzi has been running an education consulting business, along with several of her non-teaching colleagues. Many are questioning how this group of executives has the time to operate a business, but my real concern is that they are so shamelessly profiting from the good work of actual teachers, by extolling their accomplishments as if they were their own. I am also reminded of something I have written about quite a bit in this space -- the absolutely absurd number of absurdly paid upper administrators in Massachusetts schools -- and municipal government generally -- resulting from our refusal to regionalize services.

Another "event" is fictional, but very real to me. One of our guilty pleasures is binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose protagonist is a teenager who, well, slays vampires. In the Checkpoint episode from Season 5, the "Watchers" who oversee the work of such slayers all come together to tell Buffy how poorly she is doing according to their metrics and protocols. "Don't mess with the slayer!" we say, as Buffy deftly explains the difference between those who do, and those who manage.

And finally, all of this comes as we learn that a former state official happens to be the most qualified (it seems) to pull down $300,000 a year as the overseer of Boston's bid to secure the 2024 Olympics and we are reminded of the many ways in which the Massachusetts legislature ensures that it can continue to operate in secrecy.

Ethics, oversight, and accountability, it seems, are for the little people.


This is not a recent story, but one that still grates. At a time when the governor would not bargain in good faith with state-university faculty, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift was "earning" $25,000 to co-teach one course at Suffolk University. That is, she was on the syllabus while a real professor did most of the teaching for a small fraction of that salary.