Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tales of Popo and Itza

Photo: The Tiffany Curtain Rises, CDMX
Last Thursday would have been the 100th birthday of Amalia Hernandez, who established the legendary Ballet Folklórico de México, which my favorite librarian and I had the privilege of watching in 1989.

In my geography of Latin America class that day, I talked about the dance program, and about the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, in which we saw it. We climbed many staircases before emerging into this remarkable theater on one of its topmost balconies. We were stunned by the glass curtain, which we learned years later was made by Tiffany. And I learned just now that it was created in 1912 of a million pieces of crystal.

It depicts two of my favorite volcanoes -- Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl -- which would have been visible from the cite of the palace before the city -- and smog -- obstructed the view. The view, I told my students, was unknown to most in Mexico City, because its legendary smog has only lifted fully once in the lifetimes of its older residents, and not at all since that majority of its population was born. In 1985, I said, this brilliant clear view of the famous volcanoes emerged for just a couple of days, when an earthquake shook the city violently, killing thousands and stopping traffic for days.
Image: Inside Mexico
I learned of these volcanoes during the summer of 1989. We spent a few days each in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Guanajuato, but most of our summer was in the city of Puebla and the ancient town of Cholula on its outskirts, where we were part of a program at UDLA-Puebla, a private university known for its international programs. From that side of the mountains, Popo was on the left, and a bit closer. Sometimes it loomed over the campus, and we could watch the snows at the top advance and retreat week by week, according to the weather.

We learned how to pronounce the Aztec names, and I even spent one night in the village of Yanquitalpan, high on the flanks of the great volcano. Our campus was at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the summit more than 17,000 feet. That stay in the village was perhaps halfway between the two in elevation. We also learned the legend that is illustrated above, a sort of Aztec version of Romeo and Juliet.

Only later on Thursday did I realize that I was speaking on the anniversary of the 1985 quake -- nearly at the same moment. I learned of this later in the day, of course, when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck to the south of the city, centered in Rabosa, Puebla State -- 32 days and 6 hours after the one about which we had heard so much.
Map: US Geological Survey
The best reporting I have heard on last week's earthquake aired yesterday as part of The Takeaway on PRI. Todd Zwillich hosted Mexico City Trembles, an in-depth story that included a conversation with a Mexican diplomat. The story puts the most recent tragedy in the context of the devastating September 8, 2017 quake in Oaxaca and the 1985 earthquake.  Listeners learn in detail some of the ways in which the people of Mexico City have become expert in earthquake preparedness and recovery. Most telling: immediately after the buildings collapsed last Thursday, hundreds of people could be seen running towards each one of them.

In the following days, I began to see articles about an eruption of Popocatépetl that was triggered by the Rabosa earthquake. The stories were plausible but not convincing, so I checked the Smithsonian earthquake database. The Popocatépetl page does mention minor recent activities, but they are not extraordinary for this site, and some of them predate the Rabosa quake by several days. At this point volcanologists (an important profession in Mexico and Central America) consider them unrelated.
Photo: Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program

U.S. government scientists at USGS are the best source I know of information on earthquakes worldwide, because the global seismic network needed to monitor some earthquakes must monitor them all. Volcano monitoring requires locally-installed equipment, so the USGS volcano page is excellent, but limited to volcanoes in U.S. territories. The best global volcano resource I have found is at the Smithsonian, which is located in the United States but is privately funded by the bequest of James Smithson (who never visited the United States).

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Wrestling the First Amendment

In the "Trials of the Free Press" episode of his podcast, journalist Sam Sanders has a meta-meta discussion about the vulnerability of journalism -- and therefore of democracy itself -- to the legal maneuverings of a few disgruntled elites. Fellow NPR journalist David Folkenflik and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger join Sanders to discuss Nobody Speak: The Trials of a Free Press.

Written and directed by Knappenberger, the film starts with Hulk Hogan's legal takedown of the admittedly trashy news site Gawker. It delves deeper, however, into the strategies of those who envision a world with no free press at all -- and who might just have enough money to make it happen.


Image: IMDb

I am famous (at least in my own household) for forgetting the names of films and characters, and for simply substituting my own synonyms. I'm like a walking, pointless thesaurus in that way. So when we were looking for this film on Netflix, I first misdirected Pam to the title "Shut Up." That was not getting us anywhere, but it really is the main message of them film, as unpatriotic billionaires use their money to silence reporters. Rather, to attempt to silence reporters.

It also reminded me of the Chico Buarque song "Calice," a brilliant work or resistance during Brazil's authoritarian period. As I describe in my 2013 Creative Resistance post, the title is a pun, playing on the similarity between the Portuguese words for chalice (as in the cup of the Last Supper) and shut up (which was what journalists and artists in Brazil were being told by those in power). My 2014 Overcoming Condor post describes the journalist whose killing was part of the inspiration for Buarque, and the role of the United States in supporting the Brazilian regime in those days.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wynning the Climate Bet

Gamblers might win or lose on a given day, but the house wins in the long run. Covering bets over a long time horizon is essential, whether the bet is on a deck of cards or a rising sea.
Steve Wynn is not gambling with climate denial
WBUR journalist Jack Lepiarz describes how the Steve Wynn's team is working with environmental experts to mitigate the risk of climate-related sea-level rise as they build Wynn Boston Harbor. This is the most expensive single-phase construction project in the history of Massachusetts, so Wynn must take a very long view to ensure the viability of the structure.

In just six minutes, Lepiarz and environmental consultant Jamie Fay describe how looking back 200 years and forward 100 years have influenced the construction design. Professionals in finance, insurance, construction, planning, or military operations increasingly understand that they cannot afford foolish gambles on climate.

Waterfront locations, as Lepiarz makes clear in his reporting, are both highly desirable and increasingly risky.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Medgar, Malcolm, Martin

When author James Baldwin died in 1987, he was only 30 pages into a writing project that intended to use the murders of Medgar Evers (1963 -- when I was five weeks old), Malcom X (1965), and Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968) as a lens through which to understand the American story more broadly. His premise was that the history of the country is the history of the Negro (the term he uses consistently) within the country.

In I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck brilliantly brings Baldwin's fragments of work forward four decades, weaving together Baldwin's writings (as read by Samuel L. Jackson); video of Baldwin in various debates, lectures, and talk shows; and dozens of well-chosen clips from television and film spanning nearly a century.

The film thoroughly dispels the notion that slavery and its aftermath are something that people could "get over" if only they tried a bit harder. This film is rich food for thought.


The morning after I posted this, I found Jason Satler's essay on well-mannered white supremacy, which argues that overt racism is rejected by many of the politicians who benefit most from systemic racism in various forms.

Friday, August 25, 2017

First-Time-Ever Arctic Crossing

For many international shipments, the routes shown above are far shorter than alternatives that would pass through the Suez Canal as they circle Asia to the south. These routes have historically been quite difficult, though, being impassable in cold months and requiring massive icebreaker escorts in warmer months.

This has now changed, according to a report from CNN Money, which presents melting Arctic ice as a new opportunity presented by climate change. The Russian tanker Cristophe de Margerie has traveled from Norway to South Korea in 19 days, the first ship to make such a journey without an icebreaker in front of it. It is a sign of many more such voyages to come.

We know from the study of climate justice that the consequences of climate change accrue very unevenly -- so unevenly, in fact that people in some regions or economic sectors are actually experiencing benefits.

The problems of melting Arctic ice are many and are well documented. This story about shipping brings to mind three kinds of feedback associated with the ice loss:

1. Fuel saved by shorter transit times will reduce carbon loading and slightly slow overall warming.
2. Greater access to fossil-fuel deposits will likely add to carbon loading in much greater amounts than these savings.
3. More important than either of these, less ice means lower albedo (surface reflectance) and therefore much greater warming, regionally and globally. This feedback loop is already in effect, and accounts for the heretofore unimaginable rapid rates of ice loss.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Farming for 100 Years, Near Boston

I have visited Volante Farms in Needham, Massachusetts a couple of times; I think the first time was during one of the many explorations we make in our travels around the state with Project EarthView. Even a brief visit to the farm store reveals that this is a remarkable property.

A ten-minute discussion with Radio Boston journalists Jaime Bologna and Deborah Becker hints at just how remarkable the story of this family farm is. Their Farming for 100 Years story is rich with lessons about the geography of food, particularly the importance and challenges of producing food in a suburban region. I would elaborate on some of these connections here, but I am going to wait, since this will be the first writing assignment for my Land Protection class this fall.
Productive farmland, a dozen miles from downtown Boston.
Image: WBUR
I just saw this quote from Henry David Thoreau, whose lived only a few miles from this farm and whose writings are a big part of the course I am teaching.
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
I share it because I think it is relevant to how we think about buying food. I can always find an onion or a tomato that is "cheaper" than the same product from a place like this. But the products really are not the same, and the real cost of cheap food can be much higher than it appears.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Old-School Microdistricts

In 2010-2011, I was writing quite a lot in on this blog about the advantages that would accrue from regionalizing some services in Massachusetts -- consolidating the work of towns that is done by counties in most of the United States. 

It would simplify communication between state agencies and local workers, and increase the proportion of funding that would go directly to services. As logical as some county-level service provision would be, it is not going to happen in my lifetime, because of the "illusion of local control," as Gov. Patrick and I described it in a 2009 discussion. We used the word "illusion" because the small scale of governance allows taxpayers to make detailed decisions -- like a town-meeting vote on whether to buy new tires for a police car (I exaggerate only slightly) -- while unfavorable economies of scale very much constrain those decisions. Overhead is quite high, with thousands of people employed managing things who could be much more usefully employed doing the things. Search the word "regionalization" on this blog to see some specific example or read my case for regionalization page for a detailed explanation.
Old Stone Schoolhouse. Image: Fairhaven Office of Tourism
This all came to mind yesterday as my favorite librarian and I visited this Old Stone Schoolhouse in the Oxford Village area of Fairhaven. Our main goal was to learn more about the history and geography of the seaside town that began being our part-time home about two years. The outing was certainly successful -- in less than an hour we learned a great deal from the "schoolmaster" docent who connected this 1828 structure to many Fairhaven events, personalities and structures. He also helped us to understand the daily life of teachers and students in nineteenth-century New England towns.

It was the story of the school's construction, though, that gave us new insight into the current resistance to regionalization. When Fairhaven was incorporated in 1812, it included what is now the town of Acushnet, immediately to the north. The two towns cover just under 35 square miles and today have a combined population of less than 25,000 people. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts required that school districts be formed within towns, with each district required to provide for the education of children in that district.

Here is the amazing bit: within this small town, NINETEEN districts were created. This made some sense, in an age when every child would walk to school. But by the end of the century, reform movements would consolidate districts at the town level to reduce variations in funding and in the quality of instruction.

So the town-level administration we find today — with 250 school districts where 20 would do, but where a couple thousand had been — is regionalization enough by nineteenth-century standards. And as anybody who has been in New England very long knows, nineteenth-century standards are, well, standard in many aspects of life.

Lagniappe: Climate Change

Among the many interesting stories we heard during our brief visit to the Old Stone Schoolhouse was one about the commute of a teacher who lived in the center of town, about a mile and a half south of the school to which she was assigned. This was unusual enough that stories were handed down of her walking to school along Main Street in the warmer months -- and ice skating along the Acushnet River in the winter. I have been rowing year-round in the Acushnet River for the past five years, and although I have encountered some ice along the margins and even slabs of ice in the open water, I have never encountered ice that one would even consider skating on.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Water Mosaic

We live on a water planet, yet clean water is scarce. Even on my own university campus, some students do not have adequate access to clean water during the day -- though bottled water is for sale at a cost about 3 times that of gasoline.

Artist Serge Belo calls attention to the importance of water by coordinating the work of 100 volunteers to make a remarkable mosaic from recovered rainwater. I recommend watching the video above and then reading about their project on Viral Mirror and On Note.

Water is an important part of the work we do as educators in Project EarthView; I recently posted an article about the global scale of fresh water, in response to a question from a student at Rumney Marsh Academy in Revere.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Name That Learner

The first time I purchased a digital camera, it was with professional-development funds from my college. I made the case that the camera would help me to learn student names, because it would make it easy for me to take "mug shots" at the beginning of the semester and put the photos into a spreadsheet.

In most of my larger classes, I have announced on the first day that the next class meeting would be "picture day." When possible, I have used wall maps as my "studio" background. I have found the process of cropping and inserting the photos to be a good way to start learning names, and calling roll from the photo-spreadsheet has made me much better -- though still far from great -- at learning names throughout the semester.
"Yes, you there."

I started the spreadsheet approach when I was in my 30s, and eventually started using it in my smaller classes. Whenever I have failed to do so, I have ended the semester being unsure of at least a few names. And even with this help, I am sometimes at a loss to name the student in front of me. I learned that for a person over 50, this becomes increasingly common, even with long-time acquaintances. So I will continue to whatever help I can get.

Much of that help can be found in Maryellen Weimer's recent article, The Importance of Learning Students' Names, in which she describes a number of additional techniques that I plan to try. More importantly, she makes a convincing case for involving students more directly in the process. Networking, after all, is an important benefit of education at all levels, and it is worth spending a little bit of class time to facilitate connections.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Medicare and Small-d democracy

Seminary was where I got my questions answered, and life was where I got my answers questioned.

Bill Moyers values both halves of this couplet -- he gained a lot in seminary school, and he gained a lot by moving beyond it. He goes on to say that he knows religion is a powerful animating force in people's lives, and that he has seen both great good and great harm motivated by it.

"You can't treat grandma this way."
These remarks come near the end of a remarkable and wide-ranging conversation between the best interviewer we have -- Terry Gross -- and an accomplished journalist (with a cabinet full of Emmys) who once held Sean Spicer's job under a very different president.

The conversation begins with Moyers describing how Lyndon Johnson patiently and skillfully did his homework to bring about the passage of Medicare. The discussion then ranges across broad themes of democracy, journalism, work, and mortality -- this is 36 minutes well spent.

Actually 72 minutes, because I will probably listen to this a second time soon.


I am glad that the conversation eventually turned to Moyers seminary days. One of the first things I learned about him was that he had attended on of the six Southern Baptist Seminaries that were in place in the 1970s -- I think some of them have since closed and all of them have been taken over by ideologues who pushed out the educators. He attended Southeastern in North Carolina; my father, mother, and I all attended Midwestern in Kansas City. (Though my dad attended "for reals" and my mother and I were in a non-credit program. I think I was the only teenager ever to do so.) In those days, both seminars had a reputation for both deepening one's religious understanding and broadening one's thinking.