Sunday, June 05, 2016

Geo Veritas

Schadenfreude -- taking joy in the pain or failures of others -- is an unattractive emotion. But it is exactly what many geographers -- especially those who work in the shadows of a certain venerable institution on the Charles River -- feel when we view these vignettes recorded on the edges of a Harvard commencement.

The clip is from a longer piece about private education in general, and fails to point out that it is geographic learning in particular that is missing in the background of these young scholars -- and future decision-makers. How many people with strong opinions on climate change would perform just as poorly? Far too many, it seems, and it is for this reason that any glee geographers take from this video is short-lived.

BSU EarthView as shown in the
 national standards for
geography education.
Photo: Ashley Costa (Harris)
National Geographic
We know that geographic illiteracy is a serious problem. We also know that decisions taken at Harvard almost 70 years ago are part of the cause. The short version is that homophobia was the cause, as shutting down the department was the only way to get rid of Derwent Whittlsey, the brilliant chair of the department when the attack on the department began in 1947. On the 40th anniversary of the events, Neil Smith wrote a detailed discussion of these and other factors in an analysis published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (now called the American Association of Geographers, of which I am a member.)

In an undated article on Education.About, Brian Baskerville briefly describes the factors that led to the closing of the department (though he erroneously uses "preference" to describe Whittlsey's sexual orientation). He goes on to assert that geography remains at Harvard, as each of Pattison's 1964 Four Traditions of Geography can be found in one form or another in various parts of the curriculum. This is a rather "thin gruel" as they say, and a far cry from the systematic study of geography that is required to develop a geographically informed person.

About a decade ago, Harvard tried -- in its own flawed way -- to make amends with geography. Or at least to reclaim the word, if not the discipline itself. The effort is described in an understandably self-serving article in Harvard Magazine, Geographers See Death, Birth and Job Prospects. The article acknowledges but dismisses the claims of homophobia as it tries to build the case that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is both the key to returning intellectual rigor to the field and a necessary part of mending the "hopeless divide" between human and physical geography.

This is all by way, of course, of promoting the GIS program at Harvard. Although it is good to see a significant aspect of our field embraced there, it sadly represents a real missed opportunity. The tools and technologies of geography are important, but they are not geography itself. A conversation I had at Harvard a few years ago with GIS pioneer Jack Dangermond was telling. He had given a presentation in which he offered example after example of geographic principles and patterns. After the lecture, I was hoping that he would lend support to our efforts to expand geography education in Massachusetts. He was shockingly dismissive of the idea. The founder of ESRI is so convinced of the value of his product that he thinks it makes geographic literacy irrelevant. It is as if Word and Excel would make writing and math obsolete (which I suppose they have for some people). He argued that gap in our knowledge of geography would be remedied simply by adding more data to our GIS databases and improving user interfaces.

Whatever really transpired in the 1940s, Harvard remains a drag on geographic literacy.
Veritas -- Truth

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Their Poem

Eggs at Casa Hayes-Boh come from The Country Hen, as part of our regular milk delivery from Crescent Ridge Dairy. This week's delivery included the following colorful poem.

Eat them here or eat them there.
Enjoy the goodness anywhere.
Green eggs are not to cause alarm.
We're really talking 'bout the farm!
The eggs are brown as all have seen.
It is the farm that's much more green!

Solar has been nature's way
from the beginning of our days.
Fossil fuels lead men* [sic] astray.
Making skies an ugly gray.
Now solar is back in a big way!
And blue skies will be here to stay!

We've been good stewards of the land
farming with nature hand-in-hand.
The soil, the water and the air
always reward us for our care.
The sun will run all our machines
And keep the air so nice and clean.
Our organic eggs will be more green!

Country Hen eggs are also available in many of our area grocery stores.

*as we know, women have also been known to use fossil fuels.

My Poem

Every place I have ever been
Is still there

Indicating one of my favorite places on a National Geographic giant traveling flat map.
We rent one of these maps for a couple of weeks each year.
We will soon have our own NGS giant traveling flat map of Massachusetts.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Underground Shipwreck

To build up, construction workers first have to dig down. Doing foundation work 25 feet below grade, workers in Boston recently found a shipwreck! Even in Boston, such a find is rare -- probably the first of such a large vessel -- but it is not entirely unexpected.
Image: WBZ-TV
As the photo shows, at least one beam had been pushed through the wreck before further work revealed the hull. To its credit, the developer alerted city officials and is allowing for at least some preliminary research. The ship appears to have been carrying a cargo of lime when it ran aground in Dorchester Flats about a century and a half ago.

As most Bostonians know, a significant portion of the city -- notably such neighborhoods as Back Bay -- were built by filling in shallow waters at the mouth of the Charles River over a period of many decades, so that nautical structures are sometimes encountered far from the shoreline.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Thinking TRANSitions

I had the good fortunate of excellent teaching throughout my years as a student. (This was in the days before the Testing Industrial Complex tried to put all teaching into little boxes, but that is a digression I will take up elsewhere.)

Several of those teachers were in my history and social-studies classes in late elementary and middle school, and I remember clearly a realization that they helped me to reach somewhere around seventh grade. The history of the United States could be seen as a series of episodic expansions of the ideals of liberty and justice to encompass new populations. The ideals originally applied to a very few, and each generation addressed its own project of widening the circle.

It was years later that I learned something about the context in which all of this learning took place. I was in a school that had only very recently been integrated -- we learned that Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in 1954. We did not learn that it has only reached our part of Virginia in around 1970. We also did not learn that the legality of mixed-race marriage had only been settled in 1967, based on the case of Mr. and Mrs. Loving, who had arrested in their bedroom just 90 miles from our school, simply for being married.

Attitudes change, thankfully, and what seems a perfectly defensible societal norm in one generation is recognized as harmful bigotry in the next.

We live in volatile times, in a political season characterized more by division than by reason. But in general, the arc of history continues to bend toward justice, as the Reverends Parker and King have said. In fact, today's fractious politics can be seen as the last gasps of outdated thinking, as people struggle with their loss of unearned privilege.

In any case, this week I heard two compelling conversations with people who have been surprised to find that they have become leading advocates on one of the current growing edges of liberty -- the rights of transgender Americans. Neither of these straight, white men expected to speaking out as they have been, which makes these conversations with Marc Benioff and Rev. Mark Winfield all the more interesting. Each is worth listening to carefully.

Mr. Benioff is the CEO of Salesforce, who speaks with David Greene about his company's support for GLBT civil rights in North Carolina. Rev. Winfield is a Baptist pastor who decided he should do some research about transgender people, resulting in a Dallas Morning News blog post that has received far more attention than he ever expected. His recent conversation with Rachel Martin warrants thoughtful listening.

Karen Wireman, a mother of a Southlake transgender child, stands outside a room where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick addressed the media regarding Fort Worth school Superintendent Kent Scribner's policy to allow transgender students comfortable access to bathrooms. Photo: Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Take This Coffee for the Road

I have been hearing about Pavement Coffee in Boston from some of my students who reviewed Pavement for my coffee-shop assignment (yes, I'm that kind of professor). Meanwhile, my favorite librarian found a story that is literally about pavement coffee. (I'm also the kind of professor who grimaces when "literally" is misused; in this case, it literally is not.)
This shows coffee and pavement, but it is not clear whether it includes coffee pavement.
From the other side of the world comes news of materials scientists who have collected coffee grounds that would otherwise go to waste, and figured out a formula by which they could be repurposed to make underlayment for road surfaces -- the sub-pavement, as it were. The work was published in the forthcoming issue of Construction and Building Materials and is described by Phil Ritchie in Cosmos magazine.

We learned about it from Sarah McColl's article Where the Roads are Paved with Coffee, published in takeapart. Although the title suggests a bit more than the current reality, McColl's version of the story is a good read as she addresses other interesting aspects of coffee and coffee waste.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Be a Good Ancestor, Please

I like the message AND the image. The former is, I would like to think, obvious. In 2016, though, it seems a lot of us are not thinking about our real job.
The image shows what the world's water would look like if gathered into a sphere resting in western North America. Not only is this sphere relatively small, we should know three things about its composition:

  • 97 percent of it is salt, which is great for a lot of purposes, but not drinking or agriculture.
  • 2 percent of it is frozen, important for regulating the earth's temperature (by reflecting sunlight), but not for drinking or agriculture.
  • 1 percent is fresh, liquid and therefore possibly useful for drinking and agriculture. But this is not evenly distributed AND includes virtually all of our water pollution.

And one last thing -- as the 2 percent that is frozen melts, it becomes salt water, not fresh. In fact, some of it chills the salt water slightly, leading some people to think that the world is not warming.

We usually start our EarthView presentations with a discussion of the 97-2-1 breakdown, and often then use the globe to talk about where that 1 percent of water is distributed.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Amazon Surprise

"The Amazon" is a term that can refer to the same geographic area in slightly different ways. Politically, it is a collection of states in northern Brazil. It is also the name of a river that begins either in Peru or in Manaus, depending upon whether one considers the Solimões to be a separate river. It can also refer to the 1,000 named (and countless unnamed) rivers that drain toward the sea through that river (including a dozen rivers over 1,000 miles long in their own right). It can also refer to the 3,000,000 square miles of land drained by these rivers.

It is important to note that the "legal Amazon" covered by those northern states of Brazil cover only about half of the basin of the same name. The rest is divided among Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. We associate the Amazon with Brazil because Peru includes only 16 percent of the basin, and the other countries much less.

A younger Dr. Hayes-Boh helping out
with some field work in Porto Velho, 2003
It also, of course, refers to the rain forest that covers roughly the same ground -- the largest and most diverse ecosystem on the planet, responsible for a large proportion of the oxygen we breathe. I have been fortunate enough to be in the Amazon four times. The Brazilian state of Rondônia is where I did my doctoral research in 1997. During that visit, I briefly saw the Wedding of the Waters in Manaus, where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões flow together for many miles before mixing. I returned twice for further research -- with my family in 2000 and with a biology student in 2003. During those visits I got to see the legendary pink dolphins and manatees -- freshwater variants of those marine mammals more than 2,000 miles from salt water.

My most recent visit to the Amazon Basin, I saw glaciers, llamas, and fields of quinoa. The rushing streams we found in highland Peru during our 2014 visit to Machu Picchu were flowing away from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and would ultimate reach the Atlantic at the mouth of the Amazon.

At the end of my 1997 visit, I also had the chance to see that famous mouth from the air. One-fifth of the world's river water reaches the sea there, in a flow that is difficult to describe. Two hundred miles out to sea, the fresh water of this flow dominates. The world's largest fluvial island sits near the mouth -- Marajó is the size of Switzerland. The river that can hold such an island does not even really look like a river. When our airplane approached the city of Belem just after dawn, I thought the pilot had taken us out over the ocean.

I do not want to suggest that the Amazon is more exotic than it is. While I was there I visited universities, used computers, rode in cars. I even went to a shopping mall a couple of times. Several million people live in the basin, and many of them live in cities. In fact, urbanization was the subject of my research in the Amazon.

But the scale of the river really is stupendous, and many parts of the basin are little-known. This is all brought to mind by a very surprising discovery recently announced by oceanographers who were working just off-shore. A coral reef six hundred miles in length has just been found under those muddy waters. The mud of half a continent has been obscuring an area of coral and sponges about the size of Connecticut. Observations of unexpected fish populations published in 1977 had suggested the possibility, but it could not be confirmed until last month. Little is yet known about this reef, except that it is -- like those dolphins and manatees in Rondônia -- uniquely adapted to very atypical conditions.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Morbid Mapping

Everything has a geography. Well, everything that varies spatially -- which is almost everything.

And for every kind of geography, there is -- or should be -- a geographer. The clandestine disposal of murder victims is no exception.

Last year, we were talking with a friend about Serial, a podcast that explored a story in-depth over an entire season, each part of the report being released weekly. The first season gained a loyal audience, including our household. We were especially interested because it focused on the murder of a student at the high school from which my wife Pamela had graduated. Woodlawn High School -- just a few blocks outside the city of Baltimore -- had always had a tough reputation. The allegation that one student had been murdered by another -- her boyfriend -- had our attention.

Discussing the case with a local friend who was going to be marrying into a Baltimore family, we let her know a little bit of geography that everyone in Baltimore knows: where to bury a body. She tried a little geographic experiment at our request. She texted her fiance the question: "If you had to bury a body in Baltimore, where would you do it?"

We told her what his answer would be, and that he would probably not spell it correctly. Right on both counts. Everyone in Baltimore knows it is Leakin Park, but everyone also thinks it is called Lincoln Park.
Click to enlarge
Blogger Cham Green researches and speaks publicly about crime in and around his city. He has taken particular interest in the victims discovered in Leakin Park -- over 70 since 1946 -- and in using Geographic Information Systems to document them. He credits local journalists and the Enoch Pratt Free Library for assisting in his effort.

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Coffee is not the main reason I like to show my students the Rosie Perez film Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! As she explains in an NPR interview, this 4,000-year history of Puerto Rico is intended primarily for Puerto Ricans living in the United States. I find it to be important for a much broader audience.

Though coffee is not the focus of the film, it is mentioned near the beginning, as she and her relatives discuss the importance of a guest being served coffee immediately upon entering a Puerto Rican home, whether in Puerto Rico proper or in Miami, New York, or elsewhere. Coffee is, after all, great fuel for the conversations that cement a community. 

Recently I have been realizing that a particular brand of coffee is increasingly associated with that culture of warmth and hospitality: Bustelo. I use the word "realizing" because this has happened both through the questions I have been getting as a coffee maven and by way of readings from the Flama network of young Latinos and from Huffington Post.

The first of these -- by Flama contributor Barbara Gonzalez -- highlights tradition and familiarity as reasons to love this coffee, which she identifies as Cuban-style. Of course actual Cuban coffee is still illegal in the United States, nor does Cuba produce enough coffee to supply Bustelo's growing clientele. But Cuban-style generally means roasted dark, ground fine, and brewed strong, which Bustelo is. HuffPost writer Jay Weston goes a bit further, arguing that this is actually the world's best coffee, and that true coffee aficionados [sic] will agree.

This of course is not possible, since fine coffee and cheap coffee are mutually exclusive categories, especially if that cheap coffee is ground before packaging. This does not detract, however, from the cultural importance of this coffee, nor from the fascinating story of the family business that is Bustelo. If we could now just introduce them to shade-grown, fairly-traded coffee, it would be a truly magical tale!


Next month our whole family is going to Puerto Rico -- the first time for all of us, even though I did a major project there once (my boss made the site visit). Our main destination is on the coast, but of course we will spend part of the time in Puerto Rico's coffeelands!