Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mexico Contrasts, In Black & White

“Mujer Ángel, Desierto de Sonora, México (Angel Woman, Sonora Desert, Mexico),”
1979. Graciela Iturbide / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & New York Times
In her recent article Graciela Iturbide's Photos of Mexico Make 'Visible What, To Many, Is Invisible' is an treasure in the form of a very unusual photo essay. All of the images are by a renowned photographer who continues to interpret her cultural landscape five decades after taking up her profession. All of the text is by Evelyn Nieves, a journalist who clearly delights in introducing Iturbide's work to (mostly) new viewers.

That work informs viewers of a rich tapestry of unexpected contrasts captured in many places throughout Mexico. Those of us in the Boston area are -- for now -- very fortunate that we can begin our exploration in this Times article and continue it in an exhibition of Iturbide's work at the Museum of Fine Arts this January 19 to May 12. Some of the work -- including the arresting image of a prosthetic leg and boot -- will be part of a separate exhibition of works about the great artist Frida Kahlo, February 27 to June 16. I will be visiting some time in the overlap between the two.


I look forward to exploring more work under the byline of Evelyn Nieves, much of which celebrates the work of photographers.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Blackburn Challenges

Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Howard Blackburn Hero Fisherman Of GloucesterLone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Howard Blackburn Hero Fisherman Of Gloucester by Joseph E. Garland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first heard of Howard Blackburn because several friends in my New Bedford rowing clubs (WCR and AMHS) have participated in the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile race in the Gloucester area. I have not been in any races above 4 miles, but do hope to undertake this one someday.

I had heard snippets of Blackburn's biography, and decided that diving into his biography would be a good way to begin my sabbatical. I had already told my university that while 80 percent of my sabbatical would be devoted to curriculum development, 20 percent would be nautical studies not directly related to my teaching. The "starting gun" for my spring sabbatical was the submission of fall-semester grades, but I found the early chapters of Garland's work a very welcome diversion from end-of-semester chores.

It was also good to be reading this book after my first visit to Nova Scotia, whose geography figures prominently in the story. The maps in the book itself are rather feeble -- those who do not know New England and the Maritimes can benefit by reading this with an atlas handy.

The opening pages are astounding -- I had no idea that Blackburn's most dramatic ordeal took place when he was so very young. It was as gruesome a rowing story as can be imagined. While some -- perhaps most -- survivors of such calamity and grievous injury at sea would find a career inland, Blackburn spent the next 20 years setting ever-more elaborate nautical challenges for himself.

Driven to go ever-greater distances in ever-smaller boats, he contorted his ample frame into boats that I would not want to sail for an afternoon, and piloted them through conditions they were not built to endure. As a fellow human of substantial size, I could feel my back and legs ache as I read some passages. I was also incredulous as I read how he endured illness and injury. He would wave off the assistance of other mariners when he was clearly too sick to pilot anything.

Garland -- an accomplished mariner himself -- draws on exhaustive documentary research to write .a detailed account of adventures that always began in Gloucester but extended thousands of miles from there, in all directions.

One of my rowing clubs is also a sailing club, in which I have gained just enough experience -- mainly as ballast -- to appreciate some of the details of the sailing, while also realizing just how much of the terminology I still do not know. (Short version: a bit of wind is a really good thing; a bit more can be even better; but a lot more can be catastrophic.)

The protagonist risks being one-dimensional; after all, he has essentially the same response to every nautical challenge, which is stubborn determination.

Throughout most of the book, his wife Theresa is mentioned only when he is about to set out on a long and risky voyage, and she is only mentioned as being absent from the dock. In later chapters, we learn a bit more about their family life. We also learn about Blackburn's business dealings, which mainly involved keeping a saloon open during periods of frequently changing alcohol laws.

For me, Blackburn's most admirable qualities were those that did not garner as many headlines as his nautical daring-do: gratitude and generosity. Having been rescued from the sea by people who were themselves on the edge of starvation, he endured months of deprivation along with them. This is what drove him to always be certain he was financially comfortable. But he remembered how generously they had shared from their scant provisions, and so lavished donations on them for the rest of his years. His saloon regulars trusted so much in his generosity that they would support the poor simply by leaving cash in a jar on his bartop.

Lagniappe: I encourage anyone who reads this to read the entire Afterward. Some of it is a rather tedious account of the chain of ownership of the various sloops and dories mentioned throughout the book, but part of it is a surprising confession by the author himself.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Where the Wild Coffee Grows

Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your CupWhere the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup by Jeff Koehler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Kubbo aallegaata, Kafachoch kashoo aalle.”
~~Kafa Proverb: Without forests, no life for Kafa.

“Move up a degree [Celsius], you affect taste. Move up two degrees, you affect production. Three degrees, mortality: your plants are dead.”
~~Aaron Davis, Kew Gardens, to a Specialty Coffee Association of America symposium in Boston, 2013.

Jeff Koehler begins and ends his telling of the story of coffee in Kafa (or Kaffa), the kingdom that gave the world coffee and which is now a province of Ethiopia. The beginning chapters push the history of its use centuries earlier than I have read elsewhere, and offer a convincing case that coffee culture was established in the same area long before it reached Yemen on the Arabian (think Arabica) Peninsula. The ending chapters persuade the reader of the vital importance of Kafa’s remaining coffee forests.

Methodically building on the story of coffee’s origins, Koehler takes the reader on a botanical journey that spans continents and centuries. He demonstrates that the historical geography of coffee is essential to the future of a crop that is quite vulnerable to a changing climate.

Although I have been teaching and learning about the geography coffee for nearly two decades, I found compelling new lessons in every chapter of this well-researched text. I expect this quickly to become one of those books that students thank me for assigning.

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Friday, December 07, 2018

Last Annual Tea Tasting

Enjoy these teas with my Honors students on Wednesday, December 12. From 3:20 to 4:10 that afternoon, we will be in the Atrium of the Conant Science Building (now known as DMF), where the Ben Linder Café could one day be located.

From China and Ceylon, by way of Tealuxe in Providence
clockwise from top-left
Golden Monkey Keemum (black)
Ti-Quan Yin Iron Goddess of Mercy (oolong) 
Dragon Pearl Jasmine (green)
Yalta Evergreen Estate Ceylon (black)

I spent my 2012 sabbatical both learning more about coffee and expanding my interests to include tea. As part of that process, I was an informal observer at a meeting of the U.N. Intergovernmental Group on Tea. The meeting was much smaller than I expected -- even the hotel staff did not know what it was. The convener welcomed the 38 attendees as the "Captains of Tea." Plus me, the Coffee Maven. I think I was one of four U.S. citizens at the meeting, and I still remember a delegate from India who, when I asked how many people worked for him casually replied, "one-point-two." Meaning 1,200,000 tea workers!
IGG-Tea Climate Committee: Serious business in a casual setting
I spent part of that meeting as an observer of the Committee on Climate change, a top tea agronomist from each of three major producers: India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. We gathered around the pool where they wrote -- and allowed me to provide some input as a geographer -- a preliminary plan for the global tea industry to respond to climate change. The Captains of Tea adopted the plan unanimously, a pleasant surprise in the city that is the principle locus of climate deniers on the planet. That experience led me to offer a one-credit honors colloquium, with the intention of helping the IGG-Tea to implement that plan.

This proved far too ambitious for a one-credit class, but the students enjoyed learning about both tea and climate change, so I continued to offer the course as an opportunity to explore both topics. I did so with increasing attention to the notion of climate justice, which I learned about from Dr. Mary Robinson during that same sabbatical.

Each semester since the autumn of 2013, students in this colloquium have explored tea, climate change, and the relationships between the two. They have done a variety of projects in response, and in the past couple semesters have had a terrific new resource: the IGG-Tea group has published a final report. It is quite different from what we envisioned, but in many ways more useful and robust. Students this semester have been delving into that report and will be presenting some of its more interesting findings in our brief tasting event.


This "last annual" tasting is also the first to be offered by students, though I did provide a tea tasting for faculty colleagues at the CARS Celebration in 2013. The Tea & Climate Change colloquium has had a good run, but after 11 semesters it is time to move on. I could offer a class on chocolate, but instead will use the colloquium to explore a great city that I know only from afar: New Orleans, A Global City.

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

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