Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bad Salamander

The Mass Moments list to which I subscribe recently reminded us of an ignoble anniversary -- the creation north of Boston of the gerrymander -- a legislative district crafted by Elbridge Gerry (pronounced "Gary") and shaped like a salamander. Very early in the history of the United States -- at the first opportunity, actually -- a politician figured out how to select his voters, while giving the appearance that the opposite was taking place.
How can people not go to jail for this kind of fraud?
Back in 2010, I wrote in some detail about the sordid geography of gerrymandering -- including some examples of shameless disenfranchisement. Article One: Enumeration refers to the fact that the framers of the Constitution tried to avoid exactly this problem, putting the geographic exercise known as Census at the very beginning of the document.

Right after the anniversary, I learned of a special summer course on redistricting offered by Tufts University in Boston. The course is intended mainly for mathematicians -- the word "geometry" is used instead of geography -- but it does acknowledge the role of Geographic Information Systems in creating districts.

The technology can be put to honest or dishonest uses; the key is distancing incumbents from the process, as former California Gov. Schwarzenegger makes clear in his comparison of Congress to herpes. Another practical explanation of the problem is found in series of hypothetical voting districts published by the Washington Post in 2015.

Seeing the limits of gerrymandering, some politicians are getting desperate -- fabricating voter fraud in order to justify any regulation that they think would give them an edge in choosing their voters. Congress also continues to deny full representation to more than 600,000 citizens in the District of Columbia. The concept of one person, one vote continues to be elusive.

Monday, February 13, 2017

PERU Geography of Coffee & Climate Change

BSU Travel Course, July 10-24, 2017

Application requires brief recommendations, a $25 fee, and a few other pieces

Join BSU geographers Dr. Rob Hellström and Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan for the experience of a lifetime this summer. And earn 3 credits in the process.

Two geographers are offering this version of the department's popular Geography of Coffee travel course in South America for the first time. Since 2006, the course has been offered in Nicaragua almost every January, and more than 100 participants have found it to be a life-changing experience, many of them returning on their own for weeks or even years at a time.

Bringing the course to Peru allows us to visit a coffee-growing area whose harvest season coincides with our northern-hemisphere summer break. Climate change has become an important part of all serous discussions of coffee; this course allows us to visit important climate-change research stations and coffee farms in the same journey.

This travel course begins with a drive from Lima to research stations in the Andes Mountains at elevations of 13,000 feet, where Dr. Hellström and his students and colleagues are studying the retreat of important glaciers. Our travel to the study site will include exploration of the contemporary cultural landscape and archeology of this part of the Andes, in part to give participants time to adjust to the very high altitude.

From there, we will return to Lima and then travel by air to the upper reaches of the Amazon Basin in the northern part of Peru. There we will spend several days visiting the Oro Verde Cooperative -- a network of farmers who produce organic coffee and cacao for export to Deans Beans in Orange, Massachusetts. We will learn all of the steps that are required to grow, harvest, and produce high-quality coffee and chocolate. We will also learn how working cooperatively allows farmers to contribute directly to the economic and social development of their communities.
Coffee (left) and cacao in the Oro Verde community.
This course will include instruction from the two professors and from local experts throughout the journey. Logistical support is being provided by an outfitter with whom  Dr. Hellström  has worked many times in previous travel. Translation from Spanish and Quechua will by provided throughout, but any competency in these languages will be put to good use.

Details of the program, dates, cost, and itinerary are on the Peru Program brochure (pdf)..

Learn more about Dr.  's climate research from BSU Weather - Peru. Learn more about Dr. Hayes-Bohanan's coffee teaching from For questions about the content of the course, contact us at or For questions about registration, payment, or financial aid, please contact the Study Abroad office at or or 508-531-6183.

This course is available to all. Financial aid may be available to BSU students with FAFSA on file. Aid application deadline is March 3, 2017.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Wheel of Geography

I have long appreciated this graphic by the late, great Dr. Harm de Blij, who was perhaps the most prolific writer of geography texts of all time, and a friend of our geography department in Bridgewater. (For more, see our department's remembrance page and a link to all de Blij references on this blog for more about this remarkable geographer.)

Seen more broadly, geography is at the intersection between two areas of learning that are considered areas of critical need in education: STEM education and Global Education.

At the intersection of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) and
Global Education
Geography in 3-4-5

It is fair to ask a bit more of geography. The fact that it seems to overlap with everything does not tell us what it is. The lack of clear limits suggests it is not about anything at all, as a geologist colleague once told me. For him, most disciplines have a clear subject, such as rocks. In reality, even geology is not defined by the rocks themselves, but to a set of questions, theories and practices related to rocks. Climbing rocks and making granite countertops, for example, are not geology, nor is throwing rocks at passersby.

Geography can be understood, as a discipline concerned with three questions, four traditions, and five themes. To wit:

3 Questions. Geography asks -- of just about anything -- Where is it? Why is it there? So what? We notice locations, patterns, and spatial relationships. Then we try to describe them, explain them, and apply them to problem-solving.

4 Traditions. Since the late 19th century, much of the work of academic geographers has fallen into several areas, identified in a famous speech to geography educators by William Pattison in 1960, available here with his own 1990 words of reflection. A few generations of geographers have found it helpful to place our own work in one or more of his broad traditions: spatial, area studies, man-land (now known as human-environment), and earth science.

5 Themes. When we teach geography, we try to include several of five themes that tend to define geographic thinking: Location, Place (it is not the same as location), Human/Environmental Interaction (there's Pattison again), Movement, and Regions. Read the NCGE Five Themes introduction to see what geographers mean when we use these terms.

Bouns: 18 Standards. If you have gotten this far and still want more details about geography is, please have a look at the National Geography Frameworks -- 18 ways to demonstrate geographic competence. The 18 standards are identified online, and a published version details benchmarks at three different grade levels (4, 8, and 12). The guidance document is published by National Geographic, based on its collaboration with three other major organizations -- the National Council for Geography Education, the American Association of Geographers, and the American Geographical Society. Together they inform our advice to curriculum committees and educational programs throughout the United States.

Advocacy. Geographers consider all of this pretty important for understanding the "real world" and our place within it. I have been working with colleagues in the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance and our allies in the Massachusetts Legislature to bring geography awareness to a wide audience and to return geographic education to a prominent place in the K12 curriculum. This advocacy work is considered so relevant to the Frameworks that a photo (taken by a BSU geography alumna) of a globe we brought to the State House is included at the beginning of both its print and online versions.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


We had our first outing to Cape Cod in quite some while early in the fall, and it was quite nice. We took the pooch with us, since it was cool enough to leave her in the car when needed. But we also took her on a couple short walks, including one around Falmouth center. We took a path that loops behind this school, and we were glad we did.
The public art celebrating science and engineering is a perfect example of what some call STEM to STEAM, and what I just call good teaching.

The sense of place -- as we geographers call it -- is expressed in some interesting ways, reflecting the
 area's nautical heritage.

Teaching Gardens
I meant to write more at the time, but the photos convey the sense of place well enough. Here is a map for those who might want to visit or put this in context.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Golf and Hotels

Trump resort under development in Bali, Indonesia. The largest population of Muslims in the world lives in Indonesia, and of course most of them are not affiliated with terrorism. They are more likely to be victims than perpetrators -- just like Christians in the U.S. But some Islamist terrorism does originate in the country, leading one to wonder how it has escaped the president's travel ban. Image source: DJ Trump.

Here are some of the countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world (Muslim populations shown). As of today, some are welcome in the nation formerly known as the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

The distinction between the naughty and nice lists is not related to terrorism -- the 9/11 attacks were brought to us by people on the WELCOME LIST, and no attacks on U.S. soil have originated in the NOT WELCOME countries for at least 40 years. (According to Cato Institute.) So what distinguishes the two lists? Golf and hotels. If you are going to be a terrorist, be sure you are from a country with Trump realty connections. NOT WELCOME Iran 74,819,000 Iraq 31,108,000 Libya 6,325,000 Somalia 9,231,000 Sudan 39,027,950 Syria 20,895,000 Yemen 24,023,000 WELCOME Saudi Arabia 25,493,000 UAE 3,577,000 Egypt 73,800,000 Azerbaijan 8,795,000 Turkey 74,660,000 Indonesia 204,847,000 For more details, see Sprawling Business Empire in the NY Daily News.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Velvet Empire

When did the U.S. become an empire?  We have actual colonies by other names, post-colonial relationships with many countries, and the largest military network in the history of the planet, but we will not use the words "colony" or "empire" to describe them. Why is this?

In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, author and Boston Globe journalist Stephen Kinzer explains the roots of empire in our 1898 war with Spain -- where Teddy Roosevelt (right) famously gained military experience with the Rough Riders.

In just over a half hour, he offers the most cogent and balanced explanation I have heard of the cognitive dissonance between our democratic ideals and our imperial realities.

Click map to enlarge. Map and details from Emerson Kent

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

First Recontact

Spoiler alert: This review reveals the main finding of the new documentary First Contact.
Watch the film first if you prefer a slow reveal.
While I was traveling in Nicaragua, my favorite librarian found a documentary that she thought would interest me. We had to tamp down a bit of skepticism because the title First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon (see also: Netflix) does suggest wildness tropes that we have encountered in the 1960 sci-fi piece Lost World, in a problematic NatGeo documentary on the region, and in many narratives described in the book Olhares, which I co-authored with colleagues who study and/or live in the Amazon.

Since I wrote my dissertation in the Amazon and have been back twice -- once with my family -- we set our misgivings aside and watched this short (49m) documentary. It turns out that it takes place in Acre -- just west of my research area in Rondonia -- and neighboring parts of Peru. At first, it seemed like it was just going to play with the usual tropes of exaticism and danger (there is, after all, some actual danger to document).

Eventually, however, this story of initial contact with isolated people poses a plausible hypothesis that I had not encountered before. The entire area had been involved in the extraction of rubber over a century ago, and much of the labor used in that trade had been forced labor. The tribes that have emerged in recent years might not have been isolated since the neolithic period, as is often supposed. Instead, this film suggests, they may have been in hiding for a century or two, avoiding enslavement. Their emergence at this time -- including attacks on remote riparian villages -- could be the result of two factors. First, the oral history of long-ago slave raids may have faded in the minds of the young people of the Txapanawa. Second, illegal incursions of loggers or miners into the Alto Purús National Park may be displacing them from the refuge that had protected them since the early days of the rubber trade.
Map source: World Wildlife Fund

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Before the Flood

I really did not want to see Before the Flood, even though I teach several courses that relate directly to it. I pictured myself viewing it like a kid (or me) at a scary movie, watching through little gaps between my fingers as I try to shield my eyes from the screen. I have watched An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel a few times, and even with Al Gore's dry presentation, I found it nervous-making, at least.
Melting Arctic ice. Some parts of the film actually are pretty frightening.
So when I heard that a real film-maker had produced something very convincing about climate change, I knew that I had to see it and would want to avoid it, at the same time. Given the dramatic potential of climate change, I feared being sucked into an experience that would manipulate audience emotions with dramatic music and images of peril.

Thankfully, this film does none of that, and I managed to watch it three times in a ten-day period, without being scarred.

DiCaprio documents his travels as the U.N. Ambassador for Peace over a two-year period. Of course, I felt compelled to map his travels for him:

 He speaks in grown-up terms to a broad audience about the physical evidence for climate change and the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation, though students I showed it to found attention to remedies insufficient.

The variety of places included in the film exemplify the many important ways in which climate change is experienced -- from the disruption of crops to the rising of seas to the disruption of Hollywood film planning. Among the more interesting remedies is a more concerted effort to build batteries. The earth receives far more solar power than is needed to provide all the electricity we need -- even in New England, solar power is providing almost all of the electricity my family uses over the course of the year. This is only possible because our summer surpluses are "stored" on the grid. For solar to be a comprehensive solution, advanced batteries must be more widely available, and DiCaprio explores how this could be done.

DiCaprio could have focused more of the film on mitigation and prevention if he were making it for any audience other than a U.S. audience. But in this country, a significant amount of any discussion of climate change must be spent (squandered) on establishing that it even exists, despite mounting evidence that it does.

In my own classes, I have learned to spend relatively little time on climate denial for two reasons. First, I do not have to undertake similar apologetics for other topics, even if the topics are uncomfortable. Second, moving the discussion from scientific questions to matters of opinion is likely to use quite a lot of class time, and to do so ineffectively.

When I showed students an early draft of this blog post and asked for their suggestions, though, several suggested that I include the screenshot above -- it is a map of the relationships between semi-academic or even faux-academic organizations and their funders. The funding does not necessarily negate the findings of these think tanks, but it does suggest that skepticism would be better placed on the skeptics than on the scientists they doubt. Or harass and threaten, as DiCaprio details in the case of a scientist whose family was bullied by deniers.

Lagniappe -- not just Miami

DiCaprio's conversations with local planners in Miami are among the more persuasive sequences in Before the Flood. While members of Congress can respond to campaign donors, local officials have to respond to rising water. The increasingly frequent "sunny-day floods" in Miami are impossible to ignore, and are a very good reason to watch this film.

Shortly after I watched the film, I found a similar story from my former home in Maryland, where I studied and worked on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1980s ... and where I enjoyed a skipjack sail last summer. Baltimore Magazine recently published The Sea Also Rises, about the loss of low-lying areas in the Chesapeake Bay.

When I think of areas that are particularly vulnerable to rising waters, of course, I think of Miami, New Orleans and Louisiana generally, Bangladesh, and island nations such as Kiribati. But I should have thought of the unique geography of the Chesapeake Bay. Known by indigenous people as Great Shellfish Bay, it remains an important fishery, but the fish, crabs, and oysters are under pressure from suburban sprawl and its effects on both the quality of water and the concentration of runoff. The bay is quite shallow -- less than 40 feet deep over most of its area.  If a map of the entire 200-mile-long bay were printed on a sheet of paper, its greatest depths could be represented by scratches that would not go through the entire thickness of the sheet. Because the Chesapeake estuary is a post-Pleistocene flood of a series of river valleys, its coastline is incredibly intricate -- 8,000 miles of water front surround a 200-mile body of water --  a real boon to realtors!

I'm not sure whether that 8,000-mile figure includes islands, but it is certainly the case that islands are an important part of the human geography of the Bay. And it is the water rising around these islands that is the focus of Ron Cassie's excellent reporting.

In 2010, for example, this house became the last house to be lost to the waters rising around Holland Island. A significant portion of the island has disappeared since I took a course on the Bay as an undergraduate.
I'm getting older, but not enough older that this much of an island
should have disappeared since I was in college.
Lagniappe -- China database

The film includes pollution monitoring in China as one example of the many ways in which people around the world are taking responsibility for addressing climate change. I decided to track down some details for readers of this blog.

The organization profiled is the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which is described in some detail on social-entrepreneurship website of the Skoll Foundation. The Institute hosts a real-time map of pollution sources of various types, shown in both English and Mandarin.
Dec 7 snapshot of air sources from IPE.
Some of these sources contribute directly to climate change; some also compound the damage to public health caused by climate change, and others are simply environmental problems that warrant attention and abatement efforts, regardless of any climate connection.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Fellow Americans...

Although described by Huffington Post as squashing the question, author and NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten is gracious in his conversation with a C-SPAN listener who called in to suggest "vetting" migrants from Puerto Rico. Gjelten ignores the racist undertones of a call that begins by praising migrants from Norway and then goes on to suggest that migrants from Puerto Rico need extra screening. Rather, Gjelten patiently explains the difference between migration and immigration -- people from Puerto Rico cannot immigrate to the United States because they are already here.

Gjelten takes it easy on the caller for two reasons. One is that his style is naturally inclusive, and he is used to conversations with people of many different ideological persuasions -- so he glides past the "good" immigrant memories in order to get to the teachable moment.. The other reason might be that he knows the breadth of geographic ignorance in the United States, even regarding our own country.

The status of the Commonwealth is unusual, and even as a geographer I sometimes need reminding of the details. It is a semi-colonial place that has partial representation, full citizenship, limited taxation, and almost no autonomy. It is a complex relationship that is explored in cogent detail by actress and comedian Rosie Perez in her film ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! (available on Netflix DVD and elsewhere).

For more on Puerto Rico, see our 2010 Celebrating the States entry (from our year of marking the entrance of each state or state-like entity into the United States) and our posts about a Puerto Rico-related film and book. For comparison, I also suggest our post about my home town, which also has a semi-colonial relationship to the United States.

Finally, feel free to enjoy some of the photos we took during our first visit to Puerto Rico, in May 2016. We had won a stay in a villa near San Juan at a school auction over a year earlier, and were glad to be able to enjoy several parts of the island as a family. Of course we included a coffee farm! And we did not need our passports.
Photo from my first visit to the island. See the full collection of
Hayes-Boh photos from Puerto Rico 2016 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Your Cheatin' Climate

Lipstick on the collar
Strange phone calls and hang-ups
Working late far too often
Business travel with an attractive co-worker
You get the picture...

No one of these things proves an affair, but a pattern draws suspicion. Hire a PI, and the pattern is confirmed. Hire 100 PIs, and 97 of them agree. This still proves nothing, but the next strange event will be hard to ignore.

I watched the Leonardo DiCaprio film Before the Flood three times in the past couple weeks -- twice with classes and once with my spouse (and fellow climate-change scholar). At the end of this period, our New England weather was swinging wildly -- not setting record highs or lows for these December days, but coming close. And more importantly, changing extremes from high to low on a daily basis.

This results from oscillations in the flow of the jet stream that are more meridional (N-S) than zonal (E-W). Changes of this kind have been anticipated by climate scientists for decades, and in fact are the main reason the term "climate change" came to replace the original nomenclature.

No single week of temperature swings in a single place "proves" that our climate is unraveling. But such swings are consistent with the finding that the changes that were starting to become evident during my graduate-school days are now quite well established. At this point, our climate is Michael Douglas as Dan Gallagher, and that lipstick really should not be ignored.