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..

Monday, October 10, 2016

Los Muertos Explorations

A half-painted face is meant to represent the quick transition between life and death.
Image: Fact #11 of 12 Facts about El Día de Muertos from Abuelita
This year I am going to have an actual costume for Halloween (not my usual "aging hippy professor" routine), but I'm still more focused on the next day: El Día de los Muertos! The image above is from a nice listicle on BuzzFeed from the folks at Abuelita cocoa.

As I do a quick search on this blog, I see that I have already posted quite a lot about this holiday, so this post will just serve as a bit of a directional sign to some that I have already posted:

On El Día de los Muertos in 2011, I recognized Benjamin Linder with Los Muertos: PRESENTES!  This posts describes the annual visits (in January, rather than November) of Bridgewater State students to the grave of Benjamin Linder in Matagalpa, and our ongoing efforts to open a cafe in his honor.

I wrote Día del Libro (2014) a couple weeks ahead of the premiere of The Book of Life, an earnest attempt to bring the spirit of this holiday to a feature-length film.

In 2015, Semana de Los Muertos post describes a full week of celebrating the holiday, and points to quite a few earlier stories and videos about this important cross-quarter day -- ranging from the somber to the silly.

Finally, although she is more associated with places than with dates, this is always a good time of year to remember La Llorona. I highly recommend the three videos that I posted in 2010 to tell three versions of the La Llorona story: traditional, comical, and political.

Sunday, October 09, 2016


I begin this post with the lovely music, seascape, and dancing above as a reminder that no people should be entirely defined by the tragedies that befall them.

It is also an important time to remember that the effects of injustices can be deep and long-lasting. In the case of Haiti, the injustices of two centuries ago continue to cost lives.

As the Guardian UK and others have reported, Haiti suffered the vast majority of casualties from Hurricane Matthew 2016, with 877 dead having been counted as of the weekend following the storm. The Guardian also laments the disparity in media coverage relative to the actual damage caused by the storm in Haiti and the U.S.

Post-storm research will undoubtedly show that one of the proximate reasons for the extremely high death toll is the lack of forest cover on the eastern side of Hispaniola -- a condition that began with clear-cutting during French colonization and one made impossible to remedy because of ongoing underdevelopment.

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's most dramatic illustration of the development of underdevelopment, a framework that contradicts the prevailing wisdom that a "rising tide raises all boats" by focusing on the ways in which wealth accumulating in the core of the world economy is facilitated by impoverishment in the periphery.

A more striking example than Haiti and France would be difficult to imagine. In 1804, the people of Haiti used Enlightenment ideas they had gleaned from France and the United States to become the first people in the Western Hemisphere to free themselves from slavery and the only the second country in the same hemisphere to be free of European colonizers.

But the French managed to impose a penalty on the self-liberated colony -- a penalty that it continues to pay. Two decades after its defeat in Haiti, France sent a flotilla of naval vessels to extort 150,000,000 gold francs -- the equivalent of US$17,000,000,000 today. The excuse was that the freed slaves needed to pay for the land on which they had been enslaved.

Haiti never recovered from the robbery of an entire decade of income from the entire country. In 2015, the government of France considered repayment, and has at least forgiven modern-era debts as a gesture. But the prosperity that France enjoys today was built in part on both the enslavement of the people of Haiti and that 1825 extortion. The country can afford reparations that would go a long way toward the reduction of vulnerability to storms in Haiti today.

And now to us...

Knowing that the people of Haiti are just that -- people -- and that they are in need, it does little good to critique the underlying causes of that need if we are not also willing to step up and help. Over 800 people are now known to have died, and more than 350,000 are left in urgent need of help because of the loss of crops, homes, and bridges.
Haiti's University Hospital
Large organizations such as the Red Cross are notoriously ineffective in Haiti, and downright larcenous in their corporate structure. During our fundraising and education efforts in Bridgewater following the 2010 earthquake, we directed all of it to Partners in Health, which puts 94 percent of donations directly into service in Haiti. (Our gift back in 2010 was processed at over 100 percent because of matching funds and a donor who covered administrative costs.)

Working long-term in Haiti and with Haitians -- Partners in Health remains an excellent choice for contributing to Matthew 2016 relief.

Man Mansplaining

Cliff Clavin, Poster Boy of Male Answer Syndrome since 1992
I understand the irony -- even the audacity -- of a man writing about mansplaining. In my defense, my purpose here is to share some resources written by others about the phenomenon, in hopes of helping both men and women to navigate communication better -- in the workplace, in classrooms, and in everyday life. I recently shared all of these resources with students in my senior seminar, which includes a lot of work on career readiness.

What Is It?

For many, the September 2016 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was an introduction to the term "mansplaining." In her article Donald Trump’s Interruptions of Hillary Clinton are Familiar to Women, Boston Globe correspondent Carly Sitrin explains that it is a problematic communication pattern that goes far beyond these individuals.

Mansplaining is a relatively new term for a specific kind of behavior whose general type was identified in the 1990s. In his Male Answer Syndrome post on Dear Artist, Robert Glenn provides a good introduction to the broader phenomenon known as Male Answer Syndrome.

The term was originated by Jane Campbell in 1992, appearing first in Details magazine and then more broadly in Utne Reader (to which my favorite librarian and I had a subscription at the time, thankfully). Neither of those sources is readily available, but computer scientist Anand Natrajan has posted an unformatted version on their site.

How Does It Grow?

After introducing all of these articles to my students, I thought a bit about two factors that tend to foster too much conversational confidence in men while diminishing it in women.

For example, it has been shown that boys and girls are about equal in their math aptitude -- both as tested and as self-reported -- until middle school After that, a divergence begins that is largely explained by communication patterns in classrooms. It has been shown that the amount of time an instructor will wait for a student to solve a problem varies greatly between male and female students, regardless of the teacher's gender. In other words, teachers generally offer more encouragement to male students by waiting optimistically for them to arrive at answers, while more quickly passing over female students as soon as they hesitate to answer a question.

Actress and mathematician Danica McKellar spoke about girls and math on NPR a number of years ago and has written several books on the subject.

Male-centric conversation is reinforced in film. An amazing number of films -- including some I very much enjoy otherwise -- fail to rise above the very low bar of the Bechdel Test. A film passes the test if the following conditions are met just once:

  1. The movie has to have at least two named women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man
A surprising number of films -- even films made in 2016, after the test has been well-known for years -- fail the test. See a complete list at This is not to suggest that every movie should have female characters inserted into the story in such a way to pass the test. But it does show how accustomed we have begun to hearing only male voices.

What To Do?

What to do with all of this insight? Venture capitalist Chris Lyman suggests learning one powerful phrase, and using it whenever one is caught by the urge to supply empty answers: I Don't Know.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Good News from Gorongosa

I share a lot of bad news on this blog, and here is a bit more: we have so damaged the planet that it is no longer sufficient to seek ways of avoiding further damage through minor efforts such as recycling bottles and cans. If the future is to be anything but bleak, we must engage in restoration, not merely protection.

But here is some good news: restoration is exactly what some people are doing, such as the people in and out of Mozambique who are restoring the Gorongosa National Park.

Our Vision from Gorongosa National Park on Vimeo.

People have lived in the Gorongosa area for 300,000 years -- 10,000 human generations. A little over a century ago, the need to protect it from overuse was recognized, and for most of the 20th Century its natural communities did benefit from preservation efforts.

In recent decades, however, war in Mozambique harmed and endangered both the natural communities of Gorongosa and the human communities closely connected to it. The Gorongosa timeline outlines the place's story from pre-history through colonization to protection and conflict.

Most recently, a positive story has emerged, as local and global people are working together to restore the park's ecosystems by healing its connections to surrounding human communities. The results include an ecotourism initiative that is much deeper than most, which is explored in The Guide, which is the story of the relationship between Gorongosa neighbor Tonga Torcida and the imminent biologist E.O. Wilson.
Global-local teamwork: Wilson & Torcida in The Guide.
The global importance of the work in Gorongosa and in similar "ark" environments throughout the world was described by E.O. Wilson himself in the February 2002 article "The Bottleneck." (This link is to the Scientific American site where the issue can be purchased; the article is readily available in libraries as well).

When I started studying demographics in the 1980s, we were concerned that human population was experiencing exponential growth that was exhibiting a "J-curve" trajectory. That is, the compounding of population growth was leading to increases that seemed destined to accelerate for decades to come. Around the turn of this century, however, negative feedback processes began to slow that growth. A pattern that seemed to have no end in sight now seemed to have an end point -- a likely plateau of human population at around 9 or 10 billion in the middle of this century. This is known as "S-curve" or sigmoidal growth; we are currently in a long period of population that increases at a decreasing rates.

For those concerned -- as we all should be -- about providing resources for the growing population, this is good news. It means that our task, though daunting, is not infinite. If we can find a way to support ourselves sustainably until 2050, we should be able to do so after that date. In The Bottleneck, Wilson makes a corollary claim -- any species and wild lands that we can protect until 2050 have a reasonable chance of being protected for the long term.

I look forward to watching the full version of The Guide documentary, and perhaps with luck, to visit this park some day. Because the history of colonization connects Mozambique to Brazil, I do speak the local language.

Serious Biking

According to Google Maps, the trip from Kathmandu to Leh would be a grueling 16 hours by air, twice that by car. I do not know what route they are taking, but a dedicated group described as "Kung Fu Nuns" is currently completing this journey by BICYCLE.

As someone with very minimal biking capabilities, I have tremendous respect for these women, 500 of whom trekked 4,000 kilometers to draw attention to the worldwide problem of human trafficking. That is well over one million nun-miles in some of the world's most serious hill country!
They intend to show that women "have power and strength just like men" to which I would humbly respond -- much more than this man! Journalist Nita Bhalla tells their story in Business Insider.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Weapon of Choice: Fountain Pen

Woody Guthrie and his famously labeled guitar -- "This machine kills fascists." Eight decades after his work helped to define politics for a generation, some fools still argue that artists should avoid politics. As if that were not what the arts are for.

Two "small" items in today's news put me in mind of our greatest troubadour. I employ the scare quotes because these stories that would have been leading news items in other times, given the scale of the crimes involved. But in a year in which the presidential campaign is about greater and lesser degrees of lies and loathing, and on a day in which North Korea tested a nuke half the size of that with which America leveled Hiroshima*, it may have been easy to overlook trifling frauds measured in the mere billions of dollars.

The two stories I heard were about criminal proceedings that were proceeding on the terms of the criminals. That is to say, these are stories of white-collar crimes in which the rules have rather soft edges.

The first is the story of Wells Fargo, which fired 5,000 employees for defrauding customers. The company also paid $185,000,000 in penalties (perhaps the price of keeping these well-dressed thugs out of jail) and set aside $5,000,000 for repaying defrauded customers. That is to say, the company paid penalties equivalent to two days of earnings, while setting aside the earnings of a typical hour or so for repaying customers.

What did these wayward employees do? Exactly what one would expect them to do. Think about the pressure people who sell cars are under to meet their quotas, and the rewards they get when they meet or exceed targets. Now imagine a salesperson who could cause you to buy a car without you knowing it. That is what these banksters were doing -- selling various kinds of accounts to existing customers without their knowledge, leaving customers to pay penalties if they overdrew the accounts that funded these purchases.

NO: I did not make up that last paragraph. I'm not that smart. The settlement seems hardly necessary -- overbuilt for-profit prisons have plenty of space for these worthies.

UPDATE: Carrie Tolstedt, the executive ultimately responsible for these crimes, has decided to retire early. CEO John Stumpf praised her as “a standard-bearer of our culture” and “a champion for our customers" while ensuring that she would walk out the door with $124,600,000 in her final paycheck. Banking reforms following the 2008 were supposed to prevent such bonanzas, but loopholes apparently were found.

Meanwhile, an even bigger crime resulted in an actual indictment that was announced today, though jail time seems unlikely for Volkswagen engineer James Robert Liang. He is busily turning in those who helped him to implement the now-famous scheme to thwart emissions testing of VW vehicles, specifically those with "clean" diesel engines. As soon as he realized that he could not meet the ambitious emission targets that had been set for him, he designed a way for the engines to recognize testing equipment and operate in a non-performance mode during tests. The result was the sale of 600,000 vehicles for something like $10,000,000,000, many of which VW is busy buying back. Remedies in this case are being offered to the people who purchased the cars and are considered the primary victims of Liang's scheme, but the real victims are harder to identify -- everyone who suffered needless respiratory problems as a result of thousands of cars exceeding emissions standards over many years.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Grandest Canal ... or None At All

When I made my first visit to Nicaragua in January of 2006, I had the intention of teaching my coffee travel course there just once before moving on to other countries. Little did I know that I would return almost every year, mostly at exactly the same time of the year. The regular rhythm of my visits has allowed me to develop friendships, to observe the perils of an unraveling climate, and to notice evolving stories at the national level.

It was just before my 2011 visit that I learned of a dispute about the portrayal of the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border in Google's mapping of the Rio San Juan area. Troops were actually deployed to defend against the encroachment on Nicaragua that the government saw in Google's cartography. During my 2011 visit, I learned of the importance of this dispute for Nicaraguans living far from the contested area. For its part, Costa Rica was determined to protect the ecological integrity of the river, in part because it is an important component in Costa Rica's ecotourism development model.

Two years after that, we had learned more details about what made the territory so sensitive for Nicaragua -- especially for President Daniel Ortega and business interests associated with him: a new canal to compete with the Panama Canal. Various routes across Nicaragua were considered when the Panama project was being contemplated; today growing ship traffic has renewed interest in those alternatives. In 2013, I wrote about plans to open just such a route, and the environmental concerns raised by these plans.
The canal would involve substantial dredging in Lake Nicaragua.
Image: Meridith Kohut, New York Times
In early 2015, work on the canal actually began, with a much-publicized ground-breaking ceremony. Tensions rose as the idea of a canal began to become a reality. I had assumed that the transit of Lake Nicaragua would be the easy part of the project, but the size of the ships envisioned would require deep channels to be cut and maintained, creating permanent turbidity throughout much of the largest lake in Central America.

In an April 2016 article, New York Times writer Suzanne Daley provides a cogent description of the political and economic context in which this project has unfolded, and explains why it may never happen after all. A single wealthy investor from China has led the project, and his personal fortunes have since declined. It is not at all clear whether the Chinese government is directly involved or interested enough to finance what would be the largest excavation project ever attempted. Meanwhile, land and water rights along the proposed route remain uncertain.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Generation M

In a recent BBC radio program exploring various current religious stories, I heard a very interesting interview with author Shelina Janmohamed, regarding her new book Generation M. (To hear the interview, go to the program and queue it to 13:00.) It is based on her study of Muslim young people throughout the world

Janmohamed concludes the interview by saying that her study of this generation leaves her with the feeling that "we all share a very optimistic collective future."

The book is available in the UK now, and will be available in the U.S. on November 30, at Amazon (of course) and local booksellers.


While searching the BBC web site for a separate audio clip of the interview (which I have not yet found), I encountered a 12-minute clip with a similar title. In Young Muslims (July 2015), journalist Edward Stourton interviews young people at an East London mosque, regarding then-Prime Minister Cameron's anti-extremism proposals.

Six months after that interview, PM Cameron allegedly described Muslim women as a "traditionally submissive" monolith with weak language skills. Janmohamed launched a Twitter campaign that revealed a very different reality.
One of many polyglots showing she is not #TraditionallySubmissive 

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Teachers Opting Out

I have always assumed that I would remain a university professor until retirement age, because I absolutely love what I do, and the people with whom I teach and learn every day. But it is no longer a certainty. Twenty percent of K-12 teachers near retirement age are now leaving early, for reasons that are starting to threaten higher education as well.
Carrying the Load of False Accountability Measures
Image: LA Johnson/NPR
I was both saddened and mildly encouraged to hear the story of one such teacher -- Rick Young of Colorado -- on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday this morning. I was saddened, of course, because this educator has been pushed out early, robbing about seven years' worth of students of his passion and expertise.

I was mildly encouraged, though, because NPR bothered to tell his story, and to identify the burden of paperwork as the culprit. The description of this burden was superficial, but it is a start. NPR cannot exercise very rigorous journalism in this area because its funding comes from some of the culprits -- the Walton and Gates family foundations.

These and other "reformers" are applying some of the weakest ideas from the business arena to education at all levels. "You can't manage what you can't measure" is simplistic thinking that serves as a crutch for weak managers, but it is now applied with abandon in education, in the guise of greater "accountability."

Imagine following Picasso, Madonna, or Mick Jagger around with a clipboard, asking them to document the objectives and metrics of each brush stroke or song note. Ludicrous, right? Imagine me demanding that a ballerina describe her performance ahead of time in terms I can understand (knowing little about ballet) and being subjected to my metrics of her performance. This is what is happening in education, as great teachers are asked to explain themselves in ever-greater detail to managers with little or no teaching experience.

Higher education has been insulated from these movements, with university professors hired for their expertise and then being allowed to exercise it. Academic freedom has given us a nation full of top-notch colleges and universities, but this is changing quickly as accreditation bodies start to demand more uniformity, and that more time be spent on fads and measurements than on teaching and learning. And although we are encouraged to teach our students to dream big, we are asked simply to play along.

I remain an optimist -- otherwise I would not be a teacher at all -- but the cynics are better funded and better organized than those of us in the classrooms. So my expertise in Latin American geography might be shifted from developing lectures to locating a retirement community, earlier than expected.