Sunday, April 10, 2016

Morbid Mapping

Everything has a geography. Well, everything that varies spatially -- which is almost everything.

And for every kind of geography, there is -- or should be -- a geographer. The clandestine disposal of murder victims is no exception.

Last year, we were talking with a friend about Serial, a podcast that explored a story in-depth over an entire season, each part of the report being released weekly. The first season gained a loyal audience, including our household. We were especially interested because it focused on the murder of a student at the high school from which my wife Pamela had graduated. Woodlawn High School -- just a few blocks outside the city of Baltimore -- had always had a tough reputation. The allegation that one student had been murdered by another -- her boyfriend -- had our attention.

Discussing the case with a local friend who was going to be marrying into a Baltimore family, we let her know a little bit of geography that everyone in Baltimore knows: where to bury a body. She tried a little geographic experiment at our request. She texted her fiance the question: "If you had to bury a body in Baltimore, where would you do it?"

We told her what his answer would be, and that he would probably not spell it correctly. Right on both counts. Everyone in Baltimore knows it is Leakin Park, but everyone also thinks it is called Lincoln Park.
Click to enlarge
Blogger Cham Green researches and speaks publicly about crime in and around his city. He has taken particular interest in the victims discovered in Leakin Park -- over 70 since 1946 -- and in using Geographic Information Systems to document them. He credits local journalists and the Enoch Pratt Free Library for assisting in his effort.

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Coffee is not the main reason I like to show my students the Rosie Perez film Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! As she explains in an NPR interview, this 4,000-year history of Puerto Rico is intended primarily for Puerto Ricans living in the United States. I find it to be important for a much broader audience.

Though coffee is not the focus of the film, it is mentioned near the beginning, as she and her relatives discuss the importance of a guest being served coffee immediately upon entering a Puerto Rican home, whether in Puerto Rico proper or in Miami, New York, or elsewhere. Coffee is, after all, great fuel for the conversations that cement a community. 

Recently I have been realizing that a particular brand of coffee is increasingly associated with that culture of warmth and hospitality: Bustelo. I use the word "realizing" because this has happened both through the questions I have been getting as a coffee maven and by way of readings from the Flama network of young Latinos and from Huffington Post.

The first of these -- by Flama contributor Barbara Gonzalez -- highlights tradition and familiarity as reasons to love this coffee, which she identifies as Cuban-style. Of course actual Cuban coffee is still illegal in the United States, nor does Cuba produce enough coffee to supply Bustelo's growing clientele. But Cuban-style generally means roasted dark, ground fine, and brewed strong, which Bustelo is. HuffPost writer Jay Weston goes a bit further, arguing that this is actually the world's best coffee, and that true coffee aficionados [sic] will agree.

This of course is not possible, since fine coffee and cheap coffee are mutually exclusive categories, especially if that cheap coffee is ground before packaging. This does not detract, however, from the cultural importance of this coffee, nor from the fascinating story of the family business that is Bustelo. If we could now just introduce them to shade-grown, fairly-traded coffee, it would be a truly magical tale!


Next month our whole family is going to Puerto Rico -- the first time for all of us, even though I did a major project there once (my boss made the site visit). Our main destination is on the coast, but of course we will spend part of the time in Puerto Rico's coffeelands!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Welcome Back, Drivers

I am very pleased that my coffee and geography outreach efforts bring me to Worcester with increasing frequency, as I collaborate with students at Worcester State University and Clark University (I do not really know faculty members at either place, but I know plenty of students and alumni at both).

The second largest city in New England is fascinating in many ways, including its unique approach to surface transportation. On the way back from WSU today, I decided to avoid the potholes of Route 9, and take the "highway" option -- Route 146 to I-90.

Negotiating this interchange, a question came to mind...

Which is the greatest factor of the three that define Massachusetts driving:

  • indolent drivers,
  • miserly maintenance budgets, or perhaps
  • highway engineers who graduated from here:

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Dying to Vote

(I posted the following on Facebook on April 4, 2016, based on a conversation I had with my class of future geography teachers that afternoon.)

It is a very appropriate day to mention Selma, a film that captures an important aspect of what Rev. King was trying to do.
One of the last photos of Dr. King, April 3, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
With Hosea Williams, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
This balcony is now open to the public.
I noticed several things about this film when we watched it recently. First and foremost was the importance of voting among the goals of the civil-rights movement. The violence associated with Selma resulted from the segregationists being genuinely afraid of black voters. It is a shame to see the Voting Rights Act being disregarded in 2016,and to see people opt not to vote.

I also could not help notice that secessionist flags (that is, confederate flags) were featured prominently by both the governor and ordinary thugs. Again, I am astonished to see these flags flying -- even in my northern town -- in 2016. It only means one thing at this point.

I also noticed the importance of broad coalitions and a focus on issues rather than party when trying to change the world. Gov. Wallace and President Johnson were, after all, members of the same political party at the time of their standoff in Selma!

Finally, I was reminded that many of these key events took place in my lifetime -- not all that long ago.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Finnish Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism is the increasingly misguided notion that the U.S. is best at everything simply because it is the U.S. It is a tribal instinct that encourages the brusque dismissal of critiques that admit of ways in which life might be better somewhere else. "Love it or leave it," is the refrain of  this peculiar worldview.

Howard Gardner is a U.S. educator who did leave it -- for a professional opportunity -- spent five months in Finland with his family. He can now share his perspective on why Finland has the best schools.
Source: Lonely Planet
No place is actually best at everything of course, but Finland is consistently identified as the very best in education. It should not be surprising that this is accomplished mainly by valuing educators -- holding them in higher regard even than politicians, consultants, and publishers of odious testing regimes.

Another key is a leap of faith -- counterintuitive, perhaps -- by which inattention to frequent testing leads directly to excellent results on annual tests. Who ensures that the students are learning? The same people who took care of this when I was a kid in a very different United States: teachers. Not the accountability industry or ETS: teachers.

Another key: recess outdoors. While many (most?) U.S. children no longer spend 15 minutes a day outside, their Finnish counterparts are outside 15 minutes out of each hour.
In the U.S., parents allowing this sort of behavior (walking to school) could actually be arrested for endangerment, because of television-induced misconceptions about child safety.
How do teachers in Finland avoid being stifled by bureaucrats? According to the article, it is because educational leaders protect children from politicians. In the U.S., children are pawns in games that feature educational leaders feeding teachers to the politicians who set school (and university) budgets. Teachers who should be -- figuratively -- driving the education bus are thrown under it instead.

I actually know a fair number of politicians, and I spend time talking with them about education. Individually, they respect teachers and want the best for children. After all, most of them once were children and many of them have children or grandchildren in school. As individuals, many of them also respect teachers. After all, they are successful people, and all successful people have teachers to thank for at least some of their success.

Collectively, though, something goes awry, and even well-intentioned legislators underfund education while over-regulating it. For us to catch up with Finland, this needs to change.


Finland's lead in education rings true for me, as I did a bit of work with a Finnish social scientist when I was in graduate school. He was more articulate in English (his second or third language) than most people who speak it as a first language.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Across the Water

Over the past several years, I have found rowing to be a good form of exercise and also a great way to learn geography.

I recently learned a bit about the geography of New Zealand from a nice article about an epic rowing trip around the Hauraki Gulf north of Auckland.

The maps accompanying the article make effective use of the kind of tracking software we sometimes use to document our own, more modest rowing adventures.

Like all good cartography, the presentation here is elegant. Minimal information is shown -- a couple of place names, a bar scale, and the land in uniform grey without any surface features. (I made the grey a bit darker here, because the original does not show up well on my laptop screen.)

The actual rowing tracks are shown in red -- the entire journey in two long legs, with the segment associated with each day's blog entry shown with a bolder line.

The Guardian article describes the journey and also features gorgeous photography of the boats, the land, the sea, and the people who engaged in this epic adventure of human-powered travel.

All of this activity started a world away -- almost literally -- among rowers in Fife, Scotland!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Coffee Horror Show

Vincent Price, from a Pinterest collection  of many famous people drinking coffee. As one friend commented on seeing the collection, "the internet has so enriched our lives."
Over his 82 years, Vincent Price amassed over 200 acting credits, mostly in the macabre realm of ghosts, ghouls, and monsters. But the real horror may have been in this cup, which he enjoyed on the set of The Bribe.

Because Price shares a birthday with Pam, I made an early gift of his book A Treasury of Great Recipes, 50th Anniversary Edition: Famous Specialties of the World's Foremost Restaurants Adapted for the American Kitchen. From the front matter of the book -- by chef James Beard and by daughter Victoria Price -- we have already learned that Vincent and Mary Price were much greater figures in the worlds of culinary and visual arts than we would have supposed. We look forward to learning more about their travels and to preparing some of the meals, which of course we will discuss on Nueva Receta.

Given their devotion to excellence in the preparation and presentation of food, I peeked into the index to see if their gourmand instincts extended to coffee. Based on previous experience, my expectations were low, but I was not prepared for the horror that awaited on page 413, where the Prices describe how they prepare and serve iced coffee -- then a bit of a rarity -- in their home.

The Prices were all about visual style, and they were writing during a dark days of perfectly bad coffee, so they actually paid more attention to the cups than to the coffee. In fact, they start by assuring the reader that no care is taken with the coffee itself:
We serve Iced Coffee in heavy ceramic goblets, gold-lustered by Mary. It is my own most unorthodox concoction, and friends always ask about it expecting some exotic recipe involving fresh-ground Colombian beans and goodness knows what in the way of brewing and flavoring. Now the secret is out. This is all there is to it.
The recipe follows, calling for six heaping spoons of instant decaf and 9 saccharin tablets to be dissolved in a cup of boiling water. To say that the concoction was borderline toxic would not be an exaggeration, since all decaf in those days was made by rinsing coffee with antifreeze, and saccharine was not yet known to be carcinogenic.

Once this witches' brew has cooled, they recommend adding a quart of cold milk and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves or cinnamon, and serving it straight or over ice. Sweeteners, dairy, and spice are key to serving inferior coffee, as Pam and I helped demonstrate during a key study conducted by Folgers back in 1989.


Of course I would not bother to write about this if my only concern were for the uneven dining experiences of visitors to the home of Vincent Price. The fact is that bad coffee is not only unpleasant in the cup -- it is damaging both to land and people. On my own campus, even the finest meals are often served with perfectly awful coffee. Just being seated near the coffee, I can tell that it comes from poor practices that yield injustice and environmental damage at every stage.

The good news is that we know how to do it better, and my coffee students have worked with me to propose world-class coffee worthy of the social-justice and sustainability commitments our university has made.

So far, that proposal has been rebuffed by university administration, but it has a substantial number of supporters, and the space for it has already been constructed.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Risk & Revolution

One way I have gotten to know my adopted home state better is through a daily email message called Mass Moments, from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. These efimerides* describe some well-known events and some more obscure ones, and often shed light on matters that remain important decades or centuries later.
Today's lesson is about the March 20, 1760 fire in Boston, one of many to be dubbed a "Great Fire" in this city by the sea. As the article makes clear, Boston long had the locational factors that made it the city most susceptible to fire in the United States: wooden construction (including rooftops), high population density, cold climate, coastal breezes, and a peninsular location combined to make it a city where fire was easy to start and difficult to stop. It is also, of course, a hub of innovation in many fields, and fire is no exception. From great peril have come great ideas, as detailed in today's Boston Burns account.
I cannot help but think of the history of fire and innovation without considering today's toxic political environment. Since the 1980s, it has been fashionable to praise the private sector while disparaging the public sector. It has, in fact, become a bit of a political fetish to assert that public works and regulations are always wrong, while private enterprise and free choice are always right. Ironically, some politicians, contractors, and pundits have profited handsomely by playing on these unfounded assertions.
The Boston 1760 story puts the lie to such binary thinking. Much private property was lost in the fire, but the people of Boston quickly realized that public action was needed for prevention, suppression, and recovery. The risks to private property were best addressed as public risks shared by the entire city.
A series of regulations were imposed on individual residents to supply their properties with ladders and buckets and taxes were imposed to employ the first firefighters in what was to become a new country.
I have long been under the impression that Philadelphian (and patriot) Benjamin Franklin invented the fire department, he was apparently inspired -- at least in part -- by what he observed during visits to Boston.
The government in place at the time, of course, was the United Kingdom, which refused to provide any assistance with recovery. There is some evidence that this refusal contributed to the move in the next decade to provide for more responsive government of, by, and for the people.

*Lagniappe: efemerides
I have been a fan of efemerides for a long time, though I only recently learned the word, when my favorite librarian (and Spanish professor) learned it. These are the "this day in history" items that I enjoy finding in newspapers and often include on the blog we provide with EarthView, our weekly K-12 geography outreach program.
Pam learned just recently that although we can awkwardly describe the concept in English, there is actually a word for it in Spanish. We were delighted to find the word in use on a school calendar during a visit to La Corona, our home-away-from-home in Nicaragua. The word seems related to the English word ephemera.

Magic Bus

Oddly enough, I have never been on this sort of bus in Nicaragua, though we rode the equivalent frequently when we lived in Mexico in the summer of 1989.

Sometimes called "chicken buses" because people can carry chickens or whatever else they need to carry on them, these are the workhorses of rural Central America.
We see a lot of these, but I was particularly attracted to this one because it is parked between two other buses at earlier stages in the process.
When a bus arrives from the United States, only the name of its school district is painted over; otherwise lt looks like the bus to the left, which could be rolling down my own street in Bridgewater. The only enhancement so far is the all-important roof rack.
Gradually, the new owner gives it some new paint, as in the bus on the right. As money is earned from fares, personal flourishes are added, until the bus becomes a reflection of the owner's personal style (including, in this case, a bit of machismo on the front bumper).
These are privately-owned public buses. They are an excellent example of reusing something that might otherwise be discarded. The buses are ideally suited to rough rural roads and to carrying cargo from chickens to coffee -- I have seen them traversing muddy roads that had stranded many other vehicles.
The one downside to these is that they tend to be rather poor in terms of air emissions, though a single old bus emits less pollution than the dozens of pickup trucks it replaces.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Coffee Reunion

During spring break, I returned to Nicaragua to celebrate ten years of travel courses that have connected Bridgewater State University with the coffeelands of Matagalpa and Jinotega. Our group of eleven included current students, community members, and one alumnus for whom the 2010 travel course has proven especially meaningful.
Freddy Membreño of Matagalpa Tours joins Byron Corrales, myself, and Sara Corrales in commemorating ten years of BSU programs in Nicaragua. We prepared a special coffee press to mark the occasion!
Since graduating from BSU, Sullivan Cohen has become a bit of a coffee rock star, and was eager to join our reunion tour. For him, the highlight was a return to Finca Los Pinos (The Pines Farm), where he remembers having his first cup of "real" coffee. It was a moment that changed his life.
This video begins and ends with some joking around, but in between, world-class coffee producer Byron Corrales summarizes the lessons he shared during an entire morning spent exploring the farm. The audio quality from my little camera is not great, but it is worth listening to Byron's description of all the connections in a cup of coffee, and the translation by our excellent guide Marlon Rivera.
Byron is famous for producing some of the best coffee on the planet: he has placed 1st and 2nd in worldwide cupping events and continues to improve his practices. He is also famous for the care he gives his coffee compost, which extends to the management of the diet of cattle who live at Los Pinos primarily to provide manure for the coffee. His continual improvement means that he goats -- which have an important role in the origin myths of coffee -- are now part of the production cycle.


Since Nicaragua is a nation of poets, it is perhaps not surprising that these goats are routinely serenaded as they eat. Everything is connected.