Friday, February 05, 2016

Abandoning El Salvador

In the United States, neither the people in general nor the media in particular are known for a long attention span. I have always assumed that Mexican poet Octavio Paz was thinking of acts of intervention when he famously wrote "Alas, poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!" But the sentiment applies equally to our sins of omission -- our ability to forget one day what was demanding all of our attention the day before.

A recent example is the success of  Daesh/ISIS in distracting presidential contenders and much of the media and general public, through horrific acts in Paris and California. Both our angst and our xenophobia shifted quickly. The fear of migrant children from the South that had commanded so much attention in the summer and early autumn dropped away. But Central America and Mexico remain our close neighbors, and it behooves us to continue paying attention.
Senator Kennedy challenged young people to international service while he was a presidential candidate. The birth of the Peace Corps is considered to have started during this campaign appearance in 1960.
All of this is by way of preamble for several stories about U.S. connections to the region that warrant our attention. One is the announcement earlier this month that the United States is removing Peace Corps volunteers from El Salvador because of escalating violence there. The Obama Administration insists that the decision does not signify abandonment of the region, and cites ongoing spending on development. It is not clear, however, how development funds will be spent effectively without the involvement of those who work most closely with Salvadoran communities. The removal of volunteers may have been necessary, but it is also deeply concerning. It also takes place in the context of an administration that has missed many opportunities to promote justice in the region, despite its progressive reputation.

The decision also highlights concerns about deportations that continue to return young people to a region where their safety is far from assured. It also reminds us of the dark history of U.S. contributions to ongoing violence in the region itself and in deportation policies that enabled the growth of criminal gangs that now operate as close to home as Boston.

My interest in El Salvador began in the 1980s when I was working in a church in Silver Spring, Maryland that was part of a broad, interfaith movement that was providing sanctuary to refugees who in many instances needed protection while awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims. Under the Geneva Convention, many -- perhaps most -- of the 200,000 refugees who had reached the Washington, DC area were eligible for asylum.

But the Department of State usually insisted on deporting them as "economic migrants" and returning them to a war zone, even as migrants from far safer situations in Eastern Europe were granted asylum. I remember clearly a diplomat's answer to my question about this during a meeting with students at my university: to grant Salvadorans asylum would be to admit that the government we supported in their country was as violent as they claimed. So church people rallied around these refugees -- both in D.C. and on the Mexican border -- using their churches as the safe havens they have been for centuries. We eventually learned that U.S. allies in El Salvador had little regard for such niceties, as they began assassinating priests and nuns on church properties, eventually killing the Archbishop himself in a hospital chapel.

All of this is very relevant background for today's excellent discussion of Latino participation in U.S. politics on a recent hour of the On Point radio program. Three-quarters of Latinos in the United States are Mexican-American and most are not migrants, so the discussion is much broader than the question of Central American migration, and is essential to understanding the interplay between politics and demographics.

Wealth Feedback Patterns

In ecology -- and in systems theory generally -- we speak of feedback processes, which are responses within systems whereby outputs can affect inputs. They are of two basic kinds: positive and negative.

Positive feedback processes increase changes because the output "feeds back" to input in a way that causes more of the same kind of output. A common example is audio feedback, in which a microphone sends the amplified sound being output from the system speaker back through the amplifier, turning a small signal into a bigger one. Positive feedback processes help to accelerate changes.

Negative feedback is a process that tend to reverse changes. Perspiration is an example, since elevated body temperature leads to the transfer of moisture to the skin where it can evaporate and lower the temperature. Negative feedback processes help systems to tend toward stasis.

I often talk about these concepts in the context of climate change, since the warming signal triggers dozens of responses that feedback in either positive or negative ways, as defined above.

But the principles apply to all kinds of things, such as the economy and wealth distribution. Progressive tax schemes, for example, would be negative feedback mechanisms that slow changes in wealth distribution. To the extent that taxation causes the "rich to get poorer" or the "poor to get richer," negative feedback is at play.

But neither of those phrases sounds familiar, in part because we find so many mechanisms by which "the rich get richer" and "the poor get poorer." If that sounds a bit more familiar, it may be because so many processes work to reinforce changes in income. Earn a bit more money, and you might have a more reliable car, allowing you to earn more money. Suffer a financial loss from an unexpected car repair, and you might not have the money for gas to get to work. And so on.

As with climate change, the real world is complicated, and we all experience a lot of both kinds of feedback. Yet a Horatio Alger myth persists, suggesting not only that we can overcome poverty, but also that if we do not, it is our own fault. False hope ends up prevailing over solidarity, so that poor and middle-class folks often support policies that would only help them in the real world if they were actually rich.

All of which is by way of setting the context for an interesting set of studies that documents the degree to which one's wealth status is persistent across generation in the United States. The studies compare various measures of wealth and employment among adults with the economic status of their parents, and provides some insights into the reasons (feedback mechanisms) that tend to limit mobility.
Example: Earnings ranked by parental income
Note: Though it is not the focus of this research, the gender pay gap appears in all of the graphs cited
Exceptions abound, of course, but exceptions should not frame our policy choices. Sadly, they do.

In the Rings of Coffee

From the radio program Studio 360 comes an entirely visual story that demonstrates the degree to which coffee has captured my imagination -- and that of my friends. When people who know me find any kind of story related to coffee, they send it my way, thinking I will probably be interested. And they are almost always right. (See my main coffee page for some idea of the breadth involved, or search the word coffee on this blog.)

This particular example is about the British-Italian artist Carolina Maggio, and her fascinating ability to find artistic inspiration in coffee rings. Possessed of an extraordinary ability -- known as pareidolia -- to find patterns where others see randomness, she creates a wide variety of beautiful and even powerful works from the residue of spilled coffee.
The Annunciation, by Carolina Maggio
I am reminded of the work of Anká, an artist I met during my first visit to the Amazon. As we worked our way upstream to his rainforest redoubt, he kept pointing to the trees and naming famous historic figures, as though I should be able to see them in the trees. like Maggio, he could make these visions come alive for others, as in the woman greeting the dawn in this painting that hangs in our home -- probably our first "real" art purchase.
Read the Anká  story on my Folha da Frontera page
Why do coffee rings exist in the first place? Believe it or not, a team of physicists figured this out only in 1997, and their findings have implications for the design of ink-jet printers.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Hiring Humans

Some employers seeking to avoid the provisions of the Affordable Care Act have learned an interesting lessons about their workers and their businesses. The focus is on employment in fast-food, which is often cited as a sector that requires no skills. As a former master of the fryolater, I listened with interest. Decades before ACA, I knew my employers would rather hire 20 half-humans than 10 full humans.
All workers have value.
In this report, even the b-school consultants who assist employers in short-term cost-cutting are starting to rethink the proverbial race to the bottom as a management strategy.
The story is worth a careful listen. From it I take three lessons:

  1. There is no such thing as unskilled labor.
  2. Businesses benefit when they treat people as full humans.
  3. Despite the free-market ideology of its opponents, the lack of universal health care is itself a market disruption. ACA is a compromise that only partly addresses this.
In the following countries, health care is not a factor in deciding how to employ people:

The most intriguing characters in the story about health care are the fast-food managers. They are situated between the employers and most of the employees, having to negotiate difficult choices for workers who want to earn as much as they can, without earning too much to qualify for state aid. By subsidizing these workers, the state is actually subsidizing the restaurants, but the workers voluntarily limit their income to ensure that the subsidy remains in place.


The fry basket at the top of this story is a sieve, which is an apt metaphor for anti-human policies and practices related to labor, migration, and health care. A "human sieve" search on this blog leads to other posts about the problems that arise when greed tries to separate work from the humans who do it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

As Far As the Waters

For the past several years -- and especially since mid-2015 -- Acushnet has become an increasingly important part of this geographer's life. It is both a river I row on, a town I frequently drive through, and the focus of a fascinating community I am becoming a part of.  I was therefore grateful to find some details about its linguistic, cultural, and environmental meaning, courtesy of local history buff Joe Silvia.
Silvia's caption of this photo from the New Bedford Whaling Museum mentions that fishing was a safe pursuit in the Acushnet River "once upon a time." This photo is probably not from that time, but it is from a time before the dangers were well understood.
His 2013 essay subtitled Waterway that Helped Develop a Nation begins with the linguistic history of the pre-European indigenous people of the area that now surrounds the Acushnet River. He explains how a river only 8 miles in length came to play a pivotal role in the history of the region and indeed of the United States. He then provides a lot of details of the tragic history of toxic dumping in the river over a period of centuries, and concludes with the hope that his own daughter might live to see the river in its pristine condition.

One very positive step in that direction has been the restoration of a formerly industrial area very near the boundary between fresh and brackish water on the Acushnet -- where the river begins to meet the sea. I was fortunate enough to join a few other environmental professionals -- and to bring my guest geographers from Brazil -- on a preview tour of what is now the Acushnet Sawmill Park.

Restored with the leadership of the Buzzards Bay Coalition and the help of many public and private partners, this restoration is both cause for optimism and a sterling example of a single project that has benefits for water quality (on the river itself and in Buzzards Bay), flood control, wildlife habitat, vocational education, environmental education, and cultural heritage. My modest collection of photos from the October tour give a glimpse of this wonderful project.
This new fish ladder allows anadromous fish to return to breeding grounds for the first time in decades.

Some of my previous posts relating to the Acushnet include Whaleboat Delivery (about a morning row from the mouth of the river into the open ocean), Blue Boat Poem (a bit of reflection about my time on the water), and Harbor Learning (the beginnings of my involvement with the river and harbor, and some of my first lessons from it).

Monday, January 18, 2016


Getty Image, via Huffington Post
Illustration from a 1956 Dutch edition of Moby Dick
I usually have the privilege of taking students to the coffeelands of Nicaragua each January, and I was disappointed not to be able to do so this year. I plan to continue those annual trips, and so for now I consider being home the first weekend of January to be an anomaly.

My disappointment was assuaged not only by the opportunity to spend some extra time with friends and family, but also by the privilege of participating in a special literary event in New Bedford near our new second home (speaking of privilege).

We enjoy quite a few connections to New Bedford, such as the amazing Zeiterion Theater where we are members and have seen a great variety of great performers. Most of our other connections, though, have something or other to do with the whaling heritage of the city and my active membership in Whaling City Rowing, which has been mentioned in a variety of contexts on this blog. The image above shows what we do on a regular basis in the harbor, though without whales and without harpoons, and without quite as much froth on the seas!

The privilege to which I refer in the title of this post was the opportunity to participate in an event at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which we joined when we purchased our home nearby (and where I hosted a geography conference about 15 years ago).

The museum hosts a marathon reading of Moby Dick each January, and we knew that it was kind of a big deal. This year, knowing we'd both be in the area -- with a place to sleep nearby -- we decided to sign up, and learned just what a big deal it is. When the event is announced in November, 150 opportunities to read 10-minute passages are taken within the first hour. So we were not able to get on the main stage.

But the 20th anniversary read included something new and even more special -- an abridged reading in Portuguese. Sponsored by the museum and by the Portuguese Consul, a special edition of the novel was prepared by Pedro Alves to be read in just four hours. Members of the community -- especially among the many of Azorean descent or birth -- were invited to read the abridged version in five-minute increments The idea was to recognize not only the whaling heritage of the region, but the role of Azorean and Cape Verdean mariners in that heritage.

Although Portuguese speakers are common in greater New Bedford, relatively few have studied it formally, and few of them were aware of the opportunity to read this new edition. For these reasons, I was able to secure a spot among the 48 readers for this first-ever Portuguese mini-marathon reading. The organizers told me my time slot and how to estimate my place in the book. I practiced reading several chapters aloud, but focused on "O Pulpito" ("The Pulpit"), which is a vivid description of the setting for the sermon Ishmael would hear before embarking on his voyage. Seaman's Bethel -- across the street from the Whaling Museum -- inspired the chapter, and its pulpit was later altered to look like the ship's prow described by Melville. 

So when we gathered beneath the half-scale model whaleship for the reading, I read along intently as the first dozen readers -- including the Consul himself -- took five-minute turns reading. I wanted to be sure that I would be on the right page when my turn -- number 13 -- came around. I was also grateful for the introduction, from which I learned that I was not the only nervous member of this crew. Others might stumble here and there -- and a couple did -- because the purpose was not flawless delivery, but rather a celebration of the Portuguese language.

I was pleased that when my turn came, we were in exactly the spot for which I was most prepared, and I read O Pulpito with aplomb, if not perfection. I was inspired by the whole experience to re-read the entire novel, this time in Portuguese. I am starting with the abridged version (of which I had read only the first 1/4) and will then tackle the full version, which the organizers generously made available to us.

In subsequent days, I was not surprised to find news of the event on local Facebook pages, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see it covered by Huffington Post, and to see my own face -- along with Pam's -- in the background of a photo in the coverage by O Jornal of Fall River.
State Rep. António F.D. Cabral, at left, and Portuguese Consul in New Bedford with his sons sitting in the audience.Image: O Jornal

Friday, January 08, 2016

Surfacing Water

When teaching about groundwater, I begin with Once in a Lifetime because of the "water flowing underground" refrain and because, well, because David Byrne.

I usually next read McElligot's Pool to my students, even though it was written for people about 1/3 their age. I read this work from Dr. Seuss because it perpetuates the widespread misconception that water flows underground in open streams, a misconception that is reinforced by the dubious practice of searching for water with divining rods.

Water flowing underground in open streams is a  misconception, I tell them, except in karst landscapes. Where limestone is overlaid by harder rocks, the resulting caves and pits are sometimes connected by waterways that can be traced over long distances with inks or even fishing floats.

From the ever-fascinating Atlas Obscura comes a fascinating story about another kind of exception, and of some intensive geographic research with tangible benefits. Sarah Laskow reports on Eymund Diegel's research into the underground waterways of Brooklyn, New York.

He became aware that one of the earliest buildings in Brooklyn was along a brook that is no longer present, fed by an entire stream network that disappeared as the street grid was built up. Combining his expertise as a cartographer with his curiosity and some creative field work, Diegel has been able to identify water courses and to advocate for their restoration. In many cases, streams had been routed into pipelines, but after several centuries, many of those pipelines have failed and water has sometimes found its way to its pre-urban pathways.

It is neither feasible nor desirable to bring all of the surface waters back to the surface, but it turns out that careful mapping of these waterways can lead to better solutions to all kinds of problems, such as sustaining tree plantings to reducing the flooding of basements and subway tunnels. The more that is known about the fine details of the watershed, in other words, the more environmental resilience it will have.


A similar story has unfolded a few miles to the north, where the Saw Mill River had long been forgotten beneath the heavily industrialized downtown. Bringing this tributary back to the surface has been the proud achievement of Daylight Yonkers, which has shown the many ecological, social, and economic benefits of creating an urban waterfront park where there had once been only sewer pipe. I had the privilege of visiting this park when using the nearby Yonkers train station, and can attest to its aesthetic as well as ecological success.

Image: Daylight Yonkers

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Regional Thinking

Geographers think a lot about regions, as they help us to answer the fundamental questions of our discipline:
Where is it?
Why is it there?
So what?
In other words, identifying regions can be a useful step in describing spatial patterns, explaining them, and applying that understanding to important (or merely interesting) problems.

Regions can be defined in a variety of ways, such as political boundaries, physical features, or transportation patterns. If we define a region based on common characteristics, we call it a formal region, though some geographers now use that term for "official" regions. If we define a region based on patterns of interaction -- such as a market area or a river basin -- we call it a functional region. Of course, higher degrees of interaction within a functional region might cause it to develop common characteristics of a formal region.

All of this comes to mind as we consider author Colin Woodward's book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America, recently excerpted by Business Insider. It is introduced by Matthew Speiser, who fails to credit Joel Garreau's 1982 book The Nine Nations of North America, of which the more recent title is certainly derivative, and who describes it as a book about the United States, which is only partly correct.

Still -- although the author uses "history" in his title instead of "geography" -- this is a nice example of defining a region in cultural terms. Woodward focuses on predominant settlers (European only) and over-emphasizes political philosophy, while revealing his own. But this is appearing in the Politics section of the BI site, so that emphasis is understandable.

It rings true to a certain degree, and like any good regionalization, it serves as a good thought experiment. Do the regions make sense? How might they be adjusted if other factors were considered? How relevant are they to questions of political or economic differences?

Most interesting to me is the question of degree. I agree with some of the characterizations Woodward makes. I have visited all of the regions defined and I have lived in half of them, so I agree that the United States varies quite a lot from place to place, and many of those differences are reflected in politics. But I also think that the variations within these regions are more substantial than Woodward allows, and that we are much closer to a purple nation than to a collection of red and blue places.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Pink Flamingos Have a Geography, Too

Because of the John Waters 1972 film -- and because of my own experience dodging the things in my years as a landscaper -- I always associate plastic pink flamingos with my adopted home city of Baltimore.

But thanks to Atlas Obscura, I have learned that Phoenicopteridae plasticus originated much closer to my other adopted home in Massachusetts. Specifically, it emerged from the mill town of Leominster (pronounced LEMM-inster), and that the story of its invention has roots in the city's history as Comb City, with a pivotal role played by the dancer Irene Castle.
Image: Atlas Obscura

Readers interested in my writings on the mythical creature known as a free market can view the pink unicorn articles on this blog.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vertical Space

From Bucharest comes a very interesting geography of just a few square meters of land -- as it is occupied in vertical layers. Romanian photographer Bogdan Gîrbovan  selected one of the city's many identical apartment blocks, and then chose a location within that building.

He took this photograph in an apartment on the top floor:
He took photographs from the same position on each floor below, in apartments that had been identical initially. In this way he demonstrates how humans modify space at a very fine scale. All ten images are presented -- and stacked -- on the Bright Side blog.