Saturday, September 13, 2014

Coffee Catch-up

I sometimes start my coffee courses with this song, though this video rendition is new to me. It is included for sheer fun, and also because of a pun that works between the lyrics and the title of this post.

As a compulsive blogger, I sometimes have waaaay too many tabs open on my computer, and right now several of them have to do with coffee. Taking the time to blog about each one would be a great way to procrastinate on other tasks, but I am choosing to employ the original meaning of blog a "web log" or simple listing of interesting sites encountered while browsing.

So with minimal commentary, here are a few disparate articles that have caught my attention recently.

Writing for Bloomberg, Marvin Perez explains how the climate-stoked roya fungus threatens organic coffee. This article is an excellent introduction to an issue that concerns many of my friends in Central America and should concern anybody interested in coffee and climate justice.

The blog PHYS.ORG summarizes a new report on the mapping of the coffee genome, which has interesting implications for understanding the role of caffeine as both an attractor of pollinators and a repellant for insect pests. I understood about 3/4 of this article, so I have shared it with colleagues in chemistry and biology with whom I have been in increasingly specific discussions of interdisciplinary undergraduate research on coffee and caffeine.

Writing for Serious Eats, coffee pundit Nick Cho describes how to make the best French-press coffee at home. I was going to write a whole piece explaining a couple of ways to improve on his advice, but this tab has been open forever, so I'll just share and move on. Except to mention that if your kitchen is cold, you should wrap a towel around the carafe as it brews, and that you can experiment a bit with brew times and grinds until you find what makes the coffee perfect for you. Starting with excellent coffee and grinding it for each preparation are given, of course.

Also open on my computer for a long time has been NY Times blogger Jon Grinspan's fascinating explanation of how coffee fueled the Civil War.

Finally -- and I did write that this is a disparate assortment -- Boston University graduates have created Coffee, a social-networking app for users of Apple mobile devices who are seeking employment. I do not have such a device and am not seeking employment, but among my students and alumni who might use this app, some are true coffee experts. My estimation of the app will be how well it helps them find coffee-related employment!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sieve Details

I have long argued that U.S. border policy serves as a human sieve, detaining persons while allowing their labor or wealth to flow. I have written about many other aspects of misguided policy -- and misplaced thinking -- about migration.
Commerce continues at what used to be my favorite crossing point -- 100 km south of Tucson, between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, but under increasingly militarized conditions.
From Tucson, we moved to Pharr, Texas, where we had bridges directly into Tamaulipas.
I am very thankful to Roque Planas for his eloquent discussion of how to fix migration. He goes farther than I have done, but he makes the case quite clearly. Nothing about our current approach to migration policy is worth saving. Scrap it all, he says, and provides 16 compelling reasons. I would challenge skeptics to think very seriously about his reason #10: hardened borders serve as a kind of ratchet. The harder it is to get in, the more likely people are to stay once they arrive. His ethical and economic reasons are even more compelling in my view, but #16 points to one of the biggest obstacles: some people make a handsome income from unreasonably limiting the freedoms of the rest of us.

September 11, 1973

El otro 9-11 from Pancho Films on Vimeo.

Yesterday, of course, I joined my neighbors in remembering with shock and sorrow that clear, crisp morning when asymmetric war -- terror -- ripped into our lives. My own father spent part of his birthday watching the smoke pour from the deeply wounded Pentagon. A student who was in my class at the moment of the attacks lost her aunt, and did not return that semester. I also remember the brief period during which E pluribus unum really described our mood. Even in New England, people were polite on the highways. Before a small cabal figured out how to use the attack as a pretext for their long-desired war on Iraq, we even had the sympathy of the entire world (see the murals in Managua as an example).

All of this is to say that I honor the day and what it means for my own country. So I refrained from posting this story on that sensitive date. But I am also a citizen of the wider world, and I cannot ignore another terrible crime of a different September 11 -- a generation earlier and committed not against the United States, but rather with its support.

Henry Kissinger -- who is now called upon for his opinions on thwarting terror -- was an author of the terror that gripped Chile on September 11, 1973. Thought by some to be a brilliant geopolitician, Nixon's Secretary of State argued that Chile -- with its long, narrow shape -- represented a "dagger aimed at the heart of Antarctica."

So it was that the freely-elected,  president of that republic was violently overthrown by his own military, simply for seen as being to the left of center. The video above captures the turmoil and the last moments of a president's dedication to his people. He died at his own hand shortly after the speech, knowing he could hold out no longer against the attack on the presidential palace. The full speech is available on a video and in printed translation from Latino Rebels, and is well worth reading or listening. The aftermath, of course, was the long nightmare of Pinochet, who became of the notorious "friendly dictators" the United States has helped to install or maintain throughout the world.

The declassified record of Kissinger and Chile at the National Security Archive helps to put all of this in context, and to connect the crimes of September 11, 1973 to those that inevitably followed.

Friday, September 05, 2014

¡Gracias Totales!

I first became involved in Latin America because of environmental concerns, specifically deforestation in the Amazon basin. When I eventually made my way to Rondônia to study the problem, I began to appreciate the incredible variety of music from Brazil and the entire region. Eventually the cultural geography of Latin American music became a strong interest, and I weave it into my teaching and have given quite a few public lectures on the subject.

But I will never be an expert on the music of Latin America. First, I have almost no formal training in music. Second, my competence in the languages in which the music is sung is somewhere between mediocre and rudimentary. Third, Latin America encompasses dozens of countries, with thousands of artists producing fabulous music that deserves my attention, but each week comes with only 168 hours to listen and learn.

But every once in a while, I learn about a major artist -- or even an entire genre -- who had previous escaped my notice. Today was such a day, as I waited in traffic listening to The World on WGBH. It was here that the Global Hit segment was recognizing the death of Argentine Gustavo Cerati, who had been in a coma for several years. The millions of fans of his band Soda Stereo had been hoping for a recovery, and apparently the entire nation of Argentina was in mourning, with his music playing in most public places today.

Cerati famously ended his concert with the words "Gracias Totales" -- thanks for all -- which rapidly became the hashtag marking online remembrances worldwide.


NOTE: The audio for this story is not available as a separate segment from the links above. It is worth seeking, though, on the Sept 4 broadcast. It is the last segment, starting about 05:30 from the end of the file. An NPR obituary blog post by Jasmine Garsd provides a more comprehensive retrospective and puts Cerati's work in the context of Argentine politics as well as 1980s popular music globally.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The Greek word element eu signifies something good -- the good words of a eulogy, the good sound of euphony, the good speech of a euphemism -- but in the case of eutrophication, the nutrients are not just good. They are too good. Excessive nutrients in waterways lead to excessive algae, which in turn depletes oxygen and can also just look and smell nasty.

Those concerned with water quality recognize the seriousness of eutrophication. It is a major reason for the arduous Title V septic-system requirements in Massachusetts, and a major part of the secondary-school outreach of my university's Watershed Access Lab.

Because certain kinds of algae create toxins, though, eutrophication can actually be a matter of life and death, as in the recent contamination of the Toledo, Ohio water supply. On September 4, the PBS Newshour program included an in-depth discussion of long-term research on algae in Lake Erie. It is a very good introduction to the causes, consequences, and importance of eutrophication; it is for a general audience, though, and does not even use the word.

The story is from the point of view of experts on water quality itself, but also illustrates the interrelated nature of the environmental challenges we face. Human and physical geography are essential to understanding the linkages among climate change, agricultural practices, urban land use, and environmental regulation that end up determining what comes out of a kitchen faucet.


The story is also an example of the importance of long-term work in basic science. Consistent monitoring over decades is often tedious, lonely work, and work whose benefits may not be immediately obvious. The work at the center of this story has been conducted for decades at the OSU Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. Zoom in and out of the map below to appreciate this unusual location, which Pam and I had the privilege of visiting when a fellow graduate student from Miami University was spending a summer at the lab. It is an island in a bay of an island in a lake -- and much closer to Canada than I realized. To visit our friend Carol, we had to drive to Port Clinton (near Toledo), take a ferry to South Bass Island, and then take one of the lab's boat from the vacationland of Put-in Bay to the lab itself. The tiny research boat was conspicuous among the gleaming yachts.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Far from Pharr

Today in my Geography of Latin America class, I showed Like Water for Chocolate, one of our very favorite films. It is set a century or so ago along the Rio Grande, in an area about 200 miles north of where Pam and I lived. I spent much of the class time before showing the film (this is a four-hour class) discussing the geography of the region, including quite a few things mentioned in my most recent post, about the film All She Can.

So imagine my surprise when I got home and Pam mentioned that it was seventeen years ago TODAY that we arrived in Bridgewater, after a long journey by car. Our belongings arrived a few days later, owing to the incompetence of the cursed Mayflower organization. Our adventure as parents of a wonderful daughter began just a couple weeks later, and our affiliation with Bridgewater State (College) University a few weeks after that.
Route is approximate; road delays are as of the date of this blog post, not the original travel.
The route shown above is my best quick guess. I remember driving through Arkansas for the first (and so far only) time, and we did spend a couple of days in Catonsville at Pam's mother's house. There I pulled my "laptop" out of the car -- it was actually a complete PC set-up -- in order to make some last-minute changes on my dissertation. I thought they were minor changes, since my committee at Arizona had already approved the document. Two weeks later -- our second day as parents -- I learned the committee's true character when my chair informed me that they were not accepting the work, so actual approval did not come until my birthday in May the following year. Yes -- I had the bonus of spending part of my birthday with those fine folks at UA.

But I digress -- the move was a significant one, and we had some culture shock after seven years in the Southwest. Old friends had sent us off with many blessings and good wishes and new friends here welcomed us in with everything we needed.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Redemption at Alice

For the three years before we moved to Bridgewater in 1997, Pam and I lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It is not a valley, and the rio at that point is not grande. The river that rises in the mountains of New Mexico forms the border between arid parts of the former Republic of Texas and Old Mexico, and is rather tired by the time it reaches the delta in which we lived. But it is recognized as "The Valley" throughout Texas, and it is relatively lush compared to the deserts and grasslands that surround it.

Yes, the mascot is a scorpion!
Near the end of our stay there, I taught geography in the Valley, at a campus that is formally known as The University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College. Some of my students were international students living it home -- they walked over the river for class, just as I sometimes walked over the same river for lunch and shopping. Teaching there was invaluable in preparing me for the teaching I have been doing in Bridgewater ever since.

Prior to the UTB-TSC gig, though, I taught way outside the Valley, at what seems to have been the periphery of the periphery of higher education in Texas,

Texas & M University at Kingsville, Alice Extension. TAMU-K itself had been remade from Texas A &I, following a lawsuit that had failed in courts of law but succeeded in the court of public opinion.

That is to say, a class-action suit had been filed against the state of Texas over the lack of four-year universities in the area south of San Antonio. This area is just a little corner of Texas, of course, but bigger than many of the other 49 states, and home to millions of people whose access to higher education was seriously limited by the absence of the big two -- University of Texas and Texas A & M. The courts did not force the creation of new schools, but the legislature was sufficiently embarrassed to act, and each of the two big state universities created three new campuses, building on existing schools. In Kingsville, this led to a conversion of the two-year Agricultural & Industrial College into a four-year Agricultural & Mechanical University. When I visited campus, "A & I" was still on the water tower. The professor who hired me said that tradition was such that nobody would be brave enough to climb up and paint the new name, for fear of being shot at. He was joking, of course. Sort of.

All of this background is by way of explaining how we came to watch All She Can -- a movie well outside our usual range of interests -- and some of the reasons we found it so satisfying. According to an informative interview with writer-director Amy Wendel, the film was inspired by a 60 Minutes story about military recruiting in the nearby town of San Diego, Texas, where deep patriotism and limited options are equally important sides of the story of service. (My 2010 post on the belated recognition of Felix Longoria explores the legacy of military service in the region in more detail.)

Although the filmmakers come from far outside the region, they bring the viewer very close to the ground because they began the project with extensive listening. The main plotline was inspired by the very first interview with local youth -- like us, Wendel had not really heard of powerlifting as a sport for high-school girls, and was intrigued by this. Casting included a local actress in the main role, and writing avoided the cliched sequence of hardship-to-victory that makes many sports movies hard to take. The protagonist is complex, makes mistakes, and manages to make this story place-specific and universal at the same time.

The reason we found this film so effective is that it really conveys what geographers call "sense of place" -- those characteristics that people use to build identity of and around the places they live. The soundtrack features a "Benavides Born" -- a song that condenses many of these themes in just a few minutes of music. Originally the title of the film itself, the signature song has been produced with a video montage that deepens many of those connections. What is most interesting about the song -- especially as it is represented in the music video -- is that it perfectly balances pride in the place with a strong desire to get out of the place.

It was from the film that we learned of a significant upgrade in the educational landscape of Alice. Texas A&M-Kingsville was reaching out to this part of King Ranch country through a very modest extension program in which I played a very modest part; the arrival of a branch of Coastal Bend (Community) College is surely an improvement for the town, and is part of what makes it a relative metropolis.

From the film it was clear to us that the campus is housed in a former WalMart store. It is part of WalMart's scorched-earth approach to retailing that after its "regular" stores eliminate local competition, its "super" stores eliminate them. From the point of view of WalMart, it does not matter what happens to those abandoned boxes, as long as they do not become retail space. They can sit empty for years, or they can be leased or sold to local governments. One of the most storied examples has been the recent move of the McAllen Public Library (where my favorite librarian was once Head of Reference) into an abandoned WalMart. Coverage in Slate, Huffington Post, New York Times and American Libraries emphasize the creativity of the architecture -- which is indeed impressive -- rather than the overall strategy of wage suppression of which this story is a part.


Just as I was finally posting this review, I found this brief audio story about the exhumation of human remains in Falfurrias, through which I drove each week that I taught in Alice. A secondary border crossing was a small annoyance for me, but for many making the journey north, it is one obstacle too many, and some do not survive their efforts to detour around it. A recent graduate in forensic science applied her skills to the removal of bodies buried anonymously in the scrublands, and shares what she learned from the experience.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Nicaragua Contrast

About a decade ago, I made plans to lead a study tour on the geography of coffee to Nicaragua. I would go in January 2006, and then perhaps take the same concept to another country. As anybody who knows me is well aware, I fell in love with the place, and as I write this I am planning my ninth visit for January 2015. My wife has gone with me twice, and I am pleased -- as are my Nicaraguan friends -- that our daughter will be going with me this time.

My comfort in bringing both students and family members is my answer to the most common question I get about my travel there: "Is it safe?" Of course, no place is perfectly safe; murders happen even in our bucolic home town in New England. But Nicaragua is much safer than most people north of the Rio Grande would imagine, and is in fact among the least dangerous places in Latin America, despite having one of the highest levels of poverty.

As violence in Central America drives a refugee crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, it is important to understand the geography of that violence -- it is prevalent in four countries, three of which have been the "beneficiaries" of U.S. involvement. In What About Nicaragua?, Tim Rogers describes some of the reasons that Nicaragua is not part of the current crisis. (Thanks to my student Tom for finding this article!)

The article is not just cheerleading for the Sandinistas -- he points out some of the very real problems with Ortega's strange second run as president. But the article does call into serious question how and why the United States has continued disastrous policies in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Central America crime rates -- map by Fusion.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Capital of Latin America

I often ask students and audiences a quirky question: "What is the capital of Latin America?" Of course, it is a region of a couple dozen sovereign countries and the colonies of several empires, so there is no real capital. But if there were, I assert, it would be MIA: Miami International Airport. Specifically, the American Airlines hub at MIA is the nexus of most of the hemisphere, as illustrated in this 2002 route map.
Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of Timetablist.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cabbage Hypos

From the newsfeed of the EPA's Facebook page (yes, there is such a thing) I learned the details of the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988. I remember the events that triggered it, and was surprised to learn its tracking requirements were only in effect for four years, though every visit to a medical office reminds me that the lessons about the handling of "medical sharps" were learned. Or mostly learned -- I have seen medical waste during beach cleanups.

Whenever I think of this issue, I am reminded of "Sick of You," which is Professor Lou Reed's litany of indignities from of the waning days of the Reagan Administration.