Sunday, December 04, 2016

Breaking with Reagan

I became a geographer as an undergraduate, while Ronald Reagan was president. His lack of international experience and his commitment to simplistic views of geopolitics was worrisome, and also amusing. This poster went on my wall in those days, and I moved it from place to place for years. The original, tattered print is probably buried in my office somewhere; I was fortunate to find a clear version on Kelso's Corner, the blog of Washington Post cartographer Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso (the actual artist is named Horsey).
Those who know me know that I could digress -- and I probably will in class next week -- about many parts of this map. But for now I will focus on just one corner of the map -- the outsized island labeled "Our China" -- better known as Taiwan or more archaically as Nationalist China.

Of the two, Taiwan is by far the closer to the United States in terms of political outlook, but mainland China is far more important in economic terms, as a major supplier of many billions of dollars in products each year. Even before trade became so important, its military might meant that U.S. presidents were loathe to speak very honestly about our relationship with Taiwan, generally pretending not to recognize it.

So even though Ronald Reagan was perhaps the staunchest anti-communist president we ever had, he participated in the awkward diplomatic charade of pretending not to recognize both Chinas as the same time. In fact, he refused to speak to Taiwan's president, even though he had a deep ideological affinity for Taiwan. None of Reagan's successors have changed that practice..

Until this week.

Technically, of course, it is still the case that no president of either party has yet parted ways with the Gipper in theory or in practice. But a president-elect has done so, and knowledgeable diplomats are aghast. Even those who wished to change the policy have been alarmed by the cavalier way in which it was done. The exception seems to be the intransigent John Bolton, who might actually have orchestrated Donald Trump's latest faux pas.

Writing about the call and its aftermath, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker concedes that it might very well be time to end the charade and admit our de facto recognition of Taiwan. But the approach was reckless, creating substantial new risks.  Osnos explains how entertainer-turned-politician Trump may actually have walked into a trap. He writes:
I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know. 
As evil as John Bolton's intentions usually are, he is quite smart, and certainly able to realize an opportunity in Trump's lack of background in foreign policy. His influence is all the greater, given that Trump has waived off most of the actual policy briefings he has been offered. Osnos notes that this is exactly what George W. Bush did as he entered office -- when he ignored intelligence on preparations then being made by one Osama bin Laden.

Or perhaps it was not ignorance at all, but a very simple conflict of interest. Osnos writes:
Trump and his family are currently trying to win a lucrative contract with a Taiwanese city: “A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to [the city of] Taoyuan in September, expressing interest in the city’s Aerotropolis, a large-scale urban development project aimed at capitalizing on Taoyuan’s status as a transport hub for East Asia ...

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Practical Geography

I always knew that the U.K. had a lot of pubs, but I did not realize it was quite this many. Go ahead, count them:
To understand which parts of these islands are in the UK and which are not, I recommend
a five-minute tutorial on the UK by CGP Gray
Done counting? It is quite a few, is it not? Some but not all are mentioned in Bill Bryson's book Little Dribbling, which I have written about recently here and here. I expect to have maps of some of those pubs in the spring, when my geography seniors will be mapping some aspects of the book.

The snapshot above was created for the benefit of those whose computers or phones might not support exploration of the actual map. It is included in an article that finds this pub map somewhat reassuring. One comment suggests -- humorously -- that the map reveals something about alcoholism in the UK. I am no expert on pubs, but the ubiquity depicted here reinforces my notion that pubs are at least as much about community as they are drink.

The default view of the actual dataset is an area of London that includes several dozen pubs, centered on a Yahoo! office. I chose to explore Glasgow, which will be a destination for me in the next few years, possibly for a family wedding and definitely to explore the place from which the first Bohanan (Buchanan) migrated in 1734. (Andrew Bohanan was 25 when he was pressed into naval service, perhaps as he overstayed in a pub one night; he promptly went AWOL when he reached Boston. Yes, I am an 11th-generation undocumented migrant. But I digress.)
When the time comes, I will need to do "research" in several pubs, but I think I will start with the Iron Horse, handily located as it is near Buchanan Street and Buchanan Gardens. In addition to a pint or two of ale, I will also be seeking the family recipe that we always keep at our house.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Beyond Castro

Fidel Castro died last week, several generations after entering Havana in the vanguard of a revolution. A decade after passing political power to his "younger" brother Raul, his corporeal passing was nonetheless long-anticipated in Washington and Miami.
A montage from my Geography of Cuba page, recounting my
2003 visit to the island nation.
Whether this is a new, new era in relations between two countries or simply a chance to rehearse old controversies for the sake of nostalgia, it is too soon to tell. As a Latin Americanist, I have been indulging in a bit of the latter and also seeking resources to which I can point my students and other readers for some context. 

One might start with the overview provided by Charlotte England's survey in the Independent (UK), in which she explores how each of these presidents shown above interacted with the elder Castro. Writing for Slate last spring, Fred Kaplan draws connections between Fidel's 1959 conversation with then-VP Nixon and the President Obama's more recent overtures. During that 1959 meeting, it was not clear what direction Cuba would take following the overthrow of the US-allied "friendly dictator" Batista; by the end of that year, the relationship was firmly frozen along Cold War lines.

See my 2009 Cuba May Finally Be Open, 2011 Against the World, and 2013 Cuba Paradox posts for some of my observations about the relationship between Washington and Havana in recent years. 

My real impetus for this post, however, was NPR's Morning Edition, which offered four stories on various aspects of Castro's passing during its November 28 program. Together they convey just some of the complexity of this enigmatic figure and his legacy. Hearing some of these items reminded me of The New Latinos, Episode 4 in the six-part PBS series Latino Americans. This episode details migrations from the Caribbean -- Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba -- between World War II and the 1960s. Particularly in the case of Cuba, it emphasizes the rapid shifts in the public perception of migrants, depending on race, class, and political context.

Whatever happens next between the United States and Cuba -- and whatever we make of the revolution and its aftermath -- one lesson of my 2003 visit remains vitally important: much more unites us as people than divides us.
A rumba lesson in Lajas and a great conversation in Havana, 2003

Saturday, November 26, 2016

¡Mariposas, Presentes!

Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognized on the anniversary of the 1960 assassination of the remarkable Mirabel sisters. Known as the Butterflies, Patria, María Argentina Minerva and Antonia María Teresa inspired and energized the opposition to the dictatorship of the U.S.-allied Rafael Trujillo, resulting in his eventual downfall.

Their story is told in the novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and in the equally excellent film by the same name starring Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos and Lumi Cavazos.

In searching for a film trailer, I found two that were created by students;

The one by Kevin Peralta posted a video labeled as an official trailer, though it does not does not actually show the film at all. Rather short takes of high-school students reenacting some of the film's key moments provide  a moving introduction to the story.

A literature student identified only as Travis has also posted a compelling railer by editing clips for the actual film.

Note: I use the exclamation ¡Presente! in the title of this post in reference to the way those who are killed or disappeared by governments in Latin America are recognized at ceremonies or rallies. The term ¡Viva! is sometimes used, but often not quite accurate for those whose fates are unknown. So when someone like the Mirabel sisters is remembered, the word ¡Presente! (or its plural) is shouted, signifying their ongoing presence in the movement.

In recognition of this practice, the newsletter of SOA Watch is known as ¡Presente! It documents ongoing efforts to close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which has a long, bipartisan history of training U.S. allies in the suppression of democratic movements.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Happis, Hayes, Whatever

My favorite librarian and I often read to each other -- mostly she to me: I talk for a living, but do not read out loud as well as she does -- and currently we are enjoying a new book by Bill Bryson, who is rapidly becoming one of our favorite authors. See Pam's reviews of other Bryson works on her Liberry Books blog.

This book -- The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of An American in Britain -- is so rich with geographic gems that it is one of two Bryson books that I will be assigning in my senior seminar in geography in the spring. I cannot possibly include all of his geographic insights on my blog, but after reading the following paragraph, Pam suggested I blog about it. And of course she was correct, for reasons that will become apparent.
In the morning I woke to watery sunshine, and after breakfast in the Burlington's large but empty dining room drove twenty miles down the coast to Happisburgh, a remote and lonely but good-looking village roughly halfway between Sheringham and Great Yarmouth. Happisburgh is dominated by a tall, lovely lighthouse with three red stripes. A sign in the neighboring parking lot informed me that this was "the only independently run lighthouse in the Uk." Now I am very sorry, but how can you possibly pass a lifetime in a country and not know how to abbreviate it? Why did you bother going to school at all? Why did your teachers turn up in the morning? Apart from this minor outburst of illiteracy, Happisburgh seemed to be an entirely agreeable place. It is pronounced, incidentally, hays-burro, or even just hays-brrrrrr. Norfolk specializes in odd pronunciations. Hautbois is hobbiss, Wymondham is windum, Costessey is cozzy, Postwick is pozzik. People often ask why that is. I'm not sure, but I think it is just something that happens when you sleep with close relatives [sic].
Sic in this case letting readers know that this blog does not traffic in humor of this low variety, but Bryson did it, so I am leaving it here for readers to judge for themselves.

More important, though, is the geographic question: where are all these places?

This phenomenon is very familiar to residents of Massachusetts, who are used to some fairly odd pronunciations.

I was introduced to the special nature of Massachusetts town names early in my tenure here, when I told students that a field trip would include a rest stop in LEO-minster -- the first town mentioned in the video above. Fortunately, I was well-versed by the time I made a visit to Leominster High School a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Just Read

Lifted shamelessly from Instagram.
Civil-rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis cites the value of reading and libraries and teachers on the occasion of accepting the National Book Award.

The movie Selma tells some of the story of this national hero. I highly recommend it! And I will be ordering the graphic novel for which he and his co-authors won this award: March: Book Three (the link is to a boxed set of all three volumes; each volume is available in a couple of formats). To learn about the importance of this series, see Jody Arlington's review of the first volume, the Washington Post's announcement of the award for Book Three. I also recommend his 2009 interview with Terry Gross, about the movement to win the vote..

Good writing stems from time spent reading. If I see what someone has written, I cannot tell whether they went to a "good" school or not. But I can tell whether they have devoted any serious attention to reading. For more on the connections between reading and writing, please see my How to Become a Better Writer page. It is one of several Writing Tips pages on my Not-the-13th-Grade web site. As "Dear Abby" Abigail Van Buren has written, "Those who do not read are no better off than those who cannot read."

For more on libraries, visit the web site or blog of my favorite librarian.


Item #3 above refers to the skills ascribed to Christian mystic Edgar Cayce.


In the same week that Rep. Lewis so eloquently articulated the importance of reading, other politicians announce their opposition to literacy. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyders -- and his education bureaucrats -- have argued in court that students in Detroit have no right to an education that would afford them basic literacy.
Gov. Snyders doubles down on low-quality education.

All of this comes as the results of a study of information literacy confirms that students across a wide range of ages have difficulty discerning real news from fake news or opinion. When "my opinion is as good as your facts," reality becomes a very slippery concept. The Wall Street Journal report on this study cites educational "consultants" who blame parents for not teaching information literacy, even as it admits that high-stakes testing and the elimination of school librarians are the real culprits.

In addition to bringing information professionals back into schools and allowing teachers to teach there subjects rather than taking of tests, students should be encouraged at every turn to read both deeply and widely. The more we read, the less easily we are fooled.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Still a Small World

Circles of Learning from ACTFL
by way of my Small World page.
A decade or so after revising our general-education requirements in a way that removed the study of foreign languages, my university (Bridgewater State) is considering revisions to the program. A lot of interesting ideas are being proposed, but to my utter dismay, none of the options would restore the study of foreign languages as a core requirement.

I encourage current colleagues and students to read the proposed changes and to participate in the online forum. Both are available on our campus intranet for currently-affiliated persons. 

Alumni and others interested in my contribution to the discussion can read my comments below. Unfortunately, I am too dumstruck by the omission of foreign languages to give much attention to the other parts of the proposal, though I did discuss them during an on-campus forum.

I was quite active in the debate at the time our requirement was reduced from two courses to zero; my Small World web page contains many of the arguments I made at that time.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Carbon Upcycling

Industrial leaf prototype. Image: University of Illinois Chicago via TakePart
From a team of researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago comes news of a technology with the potential to slow the rate of increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The research was recently published in Science and reported on the TakePart blog. The prototype shown above might resemble any number of electronics projects I put together as a kid, but it is more like a leaf than anything else.

The researchers have found a way to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a way that allows them to produce usable fuel, using techniques and materials that make the process more efficient than heretofore possible.

When the fuel is burned, it returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, so this is not a technique for long-term carbon sequestration. It is, rather, a carbon-neutral way to replace fossil fuels; the timing of the extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere makes all the difference. It is analogous to using firewood (as I am doing right now) instead of coal to heat one's home.
Firewood cut by a local tree service; stacked in my garage this morning.
The firewood example is instructive; as I write this, a fire in my fireplace is returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It was removed from the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis within recent decades, is being returned to the atmosphere as I write this, and will again be taken out of the atmosphere by new trees growing where these were removed. The entire cycle might last 50 to 100 years or so, and the effect on the climate is nil.

Climate disruption occurs when burning fuel returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere many millions of years after it was removed. The now-familiar Keeling Curve shows a steady increase atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past three centuries, accelerating during my lifetime.
Global levels of carbon dioxide since the onset of industrial uses of fossil fuels. The concentration has grown from 280 ppm to over 400 pmm, with 350 ppm a goal of many experts interested in finding  a level that would facilitate adaptation measures.
This graph is known as the Keeling Curve, which shows the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is a trace gas -- still less than 1/20th of one percent of the atmosphere -- but a very important one because of its ability to trap outgoing energy in the infrared portion of the spectrum. Gases of this kind are called greenhouse gases, and without them Earth would be no more livable than the moon. My Frosty Denial post explains the basic physics of the relationship between increased concentrations of these gases and increased temperatures.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America, carbon dioxide accounted for 280 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere -- 0.028 percent. As measured in the tiny bubbles of air recovered from ice cores, the quantity barely changed as fossil-fuel use increased in just one small part of the world. But as industrial uses of oil, coal, and natural gas increased and broadened geographically, the concentration steadily increased as well.

That dinosaur in the gas tank was not real, for two reasons.
The organic material in fuel is plant, not animal biomass.
 And the dinosaurs are far too young. 
The key to understanding the increase is understanding the role of time. All of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels originated in that very same atmosphere. It was removed by the process of photosynthesis, building plant biomass that would eventually be compressed and transformed into coal, mainly during the Carboniferous period. Most of the world's coal was formed from plant materials over a 60,000,000 period that ended 299,000,000 years ago.

It is difficult to imagine just how long ago this was; for comparison, keep in mind that dinosaurs did not start to appear until the Mesozoic Period, more than 50,000,000 years after most of the coal had been deposited, The story is similar for oil and natural gas -- most of it was formed over a very long time period, very long ago. Within the first 200 years of industrialization, humans have burned something close to half of the fossil fuels, releasing the carbon back to the atmosphere thousands of times more rapidly than it was withdrawn.

In retrospect, it is no surprise that this increased the concentration of carbon dioxide from 280 ppm to 350 ppm by the time I entered college in the 1980s, and to 400 ppm and beyond during my adult life (so far). The perils caused by this increase include rising seas, shifting crop seasons, and the steady creep of tropical blights and diseases into formerly temperate regions. No longer a future worry, the changes are widely apparent and developing so rapidly that no single remedy can be considered sufficient. Improvements in technology need to be coupled with changes in the uses of energy, as well as measures to protect the most vulnerable people.

At this point, the key question about the carbon-capturing technology described above is whether it can be deployed at a sufficient scale and efficiency to be economically viable. If it is successful, it could help to slow the rate at which carbon dioxide continues to increase in the atmosphere. For the reasons described above, it cannot actually bring those levels DOWN -- only slow their increase. Even if this becomes a "silver bullet" technology, we will have to do much more to protect Earth's climates.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Eagle and Condor

Image: Lakota Country Times

NPR begins a story with the phrase "a pipeline about to be built," in effect conceding defeat for the Sioux people and the water they are standing to protect.  The story continues quite usefully, though, in describing Sioux leader Dave Archambault's call for peace and prayers as they seek to stop a pipeline. The conversation includes an instructive examination of how notions of private property inform the current conflict at Standing Rock.

Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa reports on her the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota, where indigenous people from throughout the world have united to demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline. This report is a bit longer than a typical NPR piece, but well worth listening to in its entirety, as she puts this particular conflict in a hemispheric context. She cites the eagle and condor prophecy,

Maps of the project available online have been of remarkably poor quality. Thankfully, a cartographer-blogger named Northland Iguana has recognized the problem and created their own map. The accompanying blog post describes the problems with existing maps and geographic considerations regarding the conflict itself.

Latest News

As of November 2, the latest development in this story is that President Obama has expressed willingness to intervene in the routing decision. For over two centuries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for issuing permits for any activity or construction that modifies or impacts navigable waterways in the United States. This makes it the oldest environmental agency in the United States, and of course it reports to the President through the Secretary of the Army. President Obama has not suggested that he would heed the broader call from indigenous people and climate activists to prohibit this project, nor has he pledged quick action on routing.

He has, however, expressed willingness to intervene regarding some of the most immediate concerns of the protesters.

And A Bit Later News ...

On November 3, the Los Angeles Times published a persuasive and informative editorial urging a complete stop to the pipeline project, citing not only the specific problems with the route -- which was moved closer to indigenous people in order to protect non-indigenous people -- but also the relationship of this project to climate change.

Coalitions and Resistance

Members of the clergy from across the United States participated in a prayer circle during a pipeline protest on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Image and article: Boston Globe.


#StandingRockSyllabus is a definitive collection of maps, timelines, blog posts, letters, and other resources related to the protectors at Standing Rock.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Bryson's Belt

My favorite librarian and I have a habit of reading books aloud together (mostly she to me), and one of our favorite (or favourite) authors to read together is Bill Bryson, perhaps best known for A Walk in the Woods, a featured in our community-wide reading program a couple of years ago and later turned into a film in which Robert Redford played Our Hero.

He is a writer from Iowa who spent two decades living in England. His trans-Atlantic writing life (abetted by his trans-Atlantic family life) help to make him a wry observer of culture on both sides of "the Pond," better able than most anybody to entertain the citizens of each country with the foibles of the other.
Box Hill in Surrey, from the London Telegrahp excerpt of Bryson's The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain.
This evening, I was taking a turn at reading in The Road to Little Dribbling when I found myself reading this remarkable exposition on environmental geography (at the beginning of Chapter 9: Day Trips). It is very instructive about both the UK and the USA.
Stand on the eastern slopes of Noar Hill in Hampshire and you have a view that is prett well unimprovable. Orchards, fields and dark woods sit handomely upon the landscape. Here and there village rooftops and church spires poke through the trees. It is lovely and timeless and tranquilly spacious, as English views so often are. It seems miles from anywhere, yet not far off over the Surrey Hills is London. Get in a car and in about an hour you can be in Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square. To me, that is a miracle, that a city as vast and demanding as London can have prospects like this on its very doorstep, in every direction.
What accounts for the great bulk of this sumptuousness is the Metropolitan Green Belt, a ring of preserved landscape, mostly woods and farmland, encircling London and several other English towns and cities with the single-minded intention of alleviating sprawl. The notion of green belts was enshrined in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and is to my mind the most intelligent, farsighted, thrillingly and self-evidently successful land management policy any nation has ever devised.
And now many people want to discard it.
The Economist magazine, for one, has for years argued that the green belts should be cast aside as a hindrance to growth. As an Economist writer editorializes from a dementia facility somewhere in the Home Counties: "The green belts that stop development around big cities should go, or at least be greatly weakened. They increase journey times without adding to human happiness."
Well, they add a great deal to my happiness, you pompous, over-educated twit. Perhaps I see this differently from others because I come from the Land of Shocking Sprawl. From time to time these days I drive with my wife from Denver International Airport to Vail,high in the Colorado Rockies, to visit our son Sam. It is a two-hour drive and the first hour is taken up with just getting out of Denver. It is a permanent astonishment to me how much support an American lifestyle needs -- shopping malls, distribution centers, storage depots, gas stations, zillion-screen multiplex cinemas, gyms, teeth-whitening clinics, business parks, motels, propane storage facilities, compounds holding flocks of U-Haul trailers or FedEx trucks, car dealerships, food outlets of a million types, and endless miles of suburban houses all straining to get a view of distant mountains.
Travel twenty-five or thirty miles out from London and you get Windsor Great Park or Epping Forest or Box Hill. Travel twenty-five or thirty miles out from Denver and you just get more Denver. I suppose Britain must have all this infrastructure, too, though I honestly don't know where most of it is. What I do know is that it isn't in the fields and farmland that ring every city. If that is not a glory, I don't know what is.
Being "over-educated" is of course not the problem with the errant writer at against whom Bryson is railing here, for there is no such thing as too much education. There is, however, such a thing as too much faith in free markets -- a fetish of mainstream economists. Bryson goes one for a few more pages to give a remarkably cogent explanation of why the efforts to dismantle Britain's green belts should be resisted. It is a primer in land-use dynamics that I will be using as a text in future sections of my Land Protection course. I also need to add this post to my page on sprawl.

Enough of the economics, though. This blog -- and Bryson's book -- are about the real world. This is the place that inspired Bryson to write the words above.

From Bryson's description in this and the previous chapter -- and by exploring the area online -- it is evident that this is simply a lovely site. As geographers, we zoom in to learn about sites -- the characteristics of places -- and we zoom out to learn about situation -- the context of places.

Noar Hill is situated between London and the sea, in a zone that surely could support the kind of sprawl that surrounds places like Denver, Atlanta, New York, and Dallas. But it need not!

Bryson's polemic in favor of green belts is just one of countless reasons to read this and his other works -- he is genuinely funny, a modern Mark Twain with a keen sense of geography..