Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When to Say "When"

A certain concentration of wealth is a good thing -- the wealthy and the aspiring wealthy assure us -- because it creates incentives. This is probably true. I really do not mind being a bit wealthier than I was at a younger age, and I know that my modest wealth allows me to provide for the employment of others. So sure, let's have a bit of wealth concentration.
Image: The Guardian
But how much would wealth need to be concentrated in order for it to be considered too concentrated? What if everyone in the world had a dollar a day, except for one guy who had everything else ... would that be too much? How close to that perverse scenario will our economy get before people object? Apparently, as close as it is now.

The graphic is similar to the Top Ten I shared recently in my Untenable Gap post, but is perhaps all the more dramatic because it is comparing two groups of people -- one about the size of a typical college calculus class and the other group number more than all of the people in the world outside of Asia.

That is:
people now have as much wealth as
people. It cannot proportional to differences in work ethic, cleverness, or even luck.

For the results to be this skewed, the game has to be rigged. Not rigged likc an underinflated football, but rigged like an entire political system that has been taken captive.

For readers not familiar with Oxfam, it is a British non-governmental organization (NGO) that not only studies poverty, but actively works on strategies to alleviate it. Oxfam has, for example, been a leader not only in promoting the fair-trade model, but also in holding it to a high standard. The same Oxfam Report responsible for the 80-vs-billions graphic also found that the "bottom 99 percent" control as much wealth as the top one percent on a global basis.

In other words, as of this evening, the top
people control as much wealth as the
of us at the bottom (apologies to my highly wealthy readers for not including you among "us" but the reasons may be evident).

According to the Global Rich List, as a mid-career professional in the United States, I'm actually in the upper echelons of that lower 99 percent, but the wealth of working people cannot compare to those who actually operate the levers of the world economy. I have tried to capture this distinction in the very simple graphic of my own, shown at right.

The 73 million at the top are shown in pink at the top, and control as much wealth as those shown below in yellow.

At the moment, it remains popular to brand as "socialist" any suggestion that this is not a viable balance, but the pendulum is swinging away from that view, as a growing number of people recognize that this is not "capitalism" either, if by that we mean an economic system that rewards ambition and hard work.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Whose Ethics?

A few stories about ethics have emerged in recent days, the juxtaposition of which has me wondering a bit about ethics rules, and who they are really for. To whit:

Dorchester teacher Nicole Bollerman won books for all of her students and $150,000 for herself as a result of a recent essay contest. SHE GAVE ALL OF THE PRIZE MONEY TO THE SCHOOL. Massachusetts is the only planet on which this could have raised any legal concerns, since "gifts" to public employees are limited to a $50. Hearing of the teacher's generosity (it is almost redundant to call a public school teacher "generous" these days, given their generally shabby treatment), comedian Ellen DeGeneres heard about her generosity and gave all the kids in the school another round of supplies, all the teachers gift cards for school supplies, and Bollerman another $25,000. Still, the ethics questions continue, though it is not clear by whom or to what purpose.

The Boston Globe's article about Bollerman makes a few interesting points. First, she gave away the original prize money despite the student loans that most professionals her age now carry, thanks to the refusal of legislatures to continue funding higher education at the levels they had enjoyed. Second, Ellen's $500 gifts to teachers are being questioned, while the common practice of teachers spending that kind of money on school supplies is not.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Stoughton, it has recently come to light that superintendent Marguerite Rizzi has been running an education consulting business, along with several of her non-teaching colleagues. Many are questioning how this group of executives has the time to operate a business, but my real concern is that they are so shamelessly profiting from the good work of actual teachers, by extolling their accomplishments as if they were their own. I am also reminded of something I have written about quite a bit in this space -- the absolutely absurd number of absurdly paid upper administrators in Massachusetts schools -- and municipal government generally -- resulting from our refusal to regionalize services.

Another "event" is fictional, but very real to me. One of our guilty pleasures is binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose protagonist is a teenager who, well, slays vampires. In the Checkpoint episode from Season 5, the "Watchers" who oversee the work of such slayers all come together to tell Buffy how poorly she is doing according to their metrics and protocols. "Don't mess with the slayer!" we say, as Buffy deftly explains the difference between those who do, and those who manage.

And finally, all of this comes as we learn that a former state official happens to be the most qualified (it seems) to pull down $300,000 a year as the overseer of Boston's bid to secure the 2024 Olympics and we are reminded of the many ways in which the Massachusetts legislature ensures that it can continue to operate in secrecy.

Ethics, oversight, and accountability, it seems, are for the little people.


This is not a recent story, but one that still grates. At a time when the governor would not bargain in good faith with state-university faculty, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift was "earning" $25,000 to co-teach one course at Suffolk University. That is, she was on the syllabus while a real professor did most of the teaching for a small fraction of that salary.

Sip Locally, Imbibe Globally

Partner's Village in Westport is a cozy cooperative of  artisans, small retailers, and of course a coffee shop.
It is a great place to buy local.
We were probably on our way to or from our favorite vineyard when we stopped by Partner's Village a few months ago, and found a page-a-day wine calendar in its bookstore. Back before the diversions of the internet, we would often have several calendars of this kind, but have not used them so much in recent years. We could not resist a year of learning more about wine, though, especially since we could buy the calendar from a local merchant. Little did we realize that "local" would itself be a major theme of the calendar's individual pages. Within the first few weeks, we peeled off several cogent geography lessons, most of them about the delights of local wine.
January 17/18: The story of our summer weekends on the Coastal Wine Trail.
January 15 has this inviting photograph and the following advice: "Attending a housewarming party? Choose a local wine or, if gifting the bottle to a friend far away, seek out a winery in his or her area and attach a map with directions to visit the winery."
This can work even in places too cold for "real" grape-based wines. We have enjoyed visits to wineries specializing in other local fruits in Vermont and Wisconsin, so a little research can probably yield a bit of bottle terroir just about anywhere. Of course, some people do not drink wine, but the same idea can be applied to the providers of other local foods.
January 20: "In excess of 10,000 different kinds of grapes exist, though the wine-drinking public focuses on only a handful, approximately 230 prominent grapes."
In this way, wine is similar to other foods. Of the thousands of plants known to be edible, humans get the rely on just a few -- rice, corn, and wheat account for 60 percent of world caloric intake. More alarming is that within any given crop, we tend to narrow the gene pool through increasing reliance on just one variety of each.

And now for the global...

January 19: The terms New World and Old World are used throughout the wine industry. Old World refers to regions from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic, including North Africa and Europe. New World includes South Africa, Australia, and North and South America, where wine has been grown only for the past 200 to 300 years.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Crowd-Sourced Mapping of Uncrowded Places

Before describing the reason for sharing the map above, I want to point out that it is probably the first map I have seen that depicts the political divisions of Nigeria -- 36 states plus the federal district of Abuja. This is simply a reminder of how vast the world is -- full of places waiting to be discovered and understood.

And this reminds me that before going on I should share a locational map in order to situate this story about Africa's largest country in terms of economy and population.
This post is about a larger-scale (that is, more detailed) mapping project within three states in the north-central part of the country. Katsina, Kano, and Jigawa include 20,000,000 people spread in small settlements over an area of 100,000 square miles. But maps of these settlements are not sufficiently accurate to facilitate governance, planning, or humanitarian aid. Even tax collectors did not really know where to find the people of this region.

Of course, the area is covered by satellite imagery, but algorithms are not as good as humans at converting those images into reliable information about settlements. This turns out to be an excellent opportunity for crowdsourcing, and the Tomnod group developed a reliable protocol that it describes in Mapping Remote Settlements.

Untenable Gap

Among the end-of-year lists I noticed at the close of 2014 was The Top 10 Charts from the Economic Policy Institute. Each of the charts describes growing economic inequality in a different way, some of which are a bit complicated or nuanced -- though all are important.

I found the one shown above to be the most compelling and easy to understand. (Go to the article itself for the interactive version of this and nine other graphics.)

It really is this simple: workers keep producing more, but they do not receive more. That wealth is going somewhere, and our democracy really depends on figuring out how to make sure some of it stays with the people who create it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Carrion Coffee

Every once in a while, I am asked whether fair-trade, organic coffee is as good as regular coffee. "No," I reply, "It is better. If you treat the soil and the farmers better, the coffee is better."

My interest in coffee began about 15 years ago, with a focus first on the farmers and then on the environment of coffeelands. It was about 10 years ago that I began to care about the beverage itself, and soon figured out that terrible coffee in the cup is a form of karma. Bad coffee comes from bad coffee systems.

It was around this time that we realized the sinister role that cream and sugar had played in making bad coffee palatable for generations of drinkers who were focused strictly on getting caffeine into their systems. We then also realized that a study in which we participated in 1989 had been specifically aimed at making the world safe for bad coffee. It is easier to mask bad coffee with flavors than to work on improving the conditions of coffee production.

All of this was brought to mind when I saw the latest Rhymes with Orange comic by Hilary Price. Coffee shops or roasters that emphasize flavors are probably trafficking in something close to Carion Coffee.

Rhymes with Orange, Dec. 27, 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

From Urban to Urbane

The red marker above shows the approximate location of a crumbling mansion whose restoration is part of a remarkable effort to restore the vitality of Beirut, Lebanon. Be sure to pan and zoom in order to see this neighborhood and its city in a broader context.

Beirut is known to most Americans either as the site of the loss of 220 Marines in 1983 or -- more likely -- simply as one of many unfamiliar cities somewhere "over there" in the Middle East. But it has a rich past, a complicated present, and a future that could illuminate the entire region.

Boston Globe journalist Thanassis Cambanis conveys a great deal about the geography of this city in his article In a Beirut Mansion, A City's Culture is Reborn.

He begins by explaining what Beirut represented prior to the civil war in Lebanon. Early in the article, he evokes the charm and ferment of a vital global city. He then explains how architect Ghassan Maasri is using the city's derelict mansions -- particularly the one on Abdul Kader Street -- to involve artists and intellectuals in making the city great once again.

The discussion at first reminds me of similar projects close to home, where Waterfire and gallery nights have reversed the decay of Providence. But Cambanis tells an even more important tale, as he puts Beirut in the context of urbanization and halting democratization in the broader Middle East.

We should all be wishing Maasri and his neighbors success in the remaking of an urbane Beirut.


Shortly after I heard Maasri's story, I heard another about a terrific house in a great city in tough times. War profiteers are making it difficult for British author Diana Darke to keep a house she purchased in Damascus. On one level, her effort to hold on to a second home is trivial in a city decimated by atrocities, but on another level it is a poignant reminder of what has been lost and what might yet be restored.

Damascus has been a city longer than any other place in the world has been a city. This house represents hope for its future.
Damascus is the world's oldest continuously occupied city. It is just 35 miles to the southeast of Beirut. It is a sign of these troubled times in Syria that despite a major highway connecting one to the other, Google cannot calculate a route.

Explore these cities and the lands between.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Open Roads

My relationship to cars.
Cars are the worst. Not only do they contribute to climate change, but the care and feeding of cars has led to sprawling landscapes that we can only get around by car. This has set up a positive-feedback loop that only makes the climate problem worse, and actually causes many to pretend to believe it does not exist, because the alternatives are so unthinkable.

But cars, alas, are also the best. I have to confess that I love few things better than the open road, explored by car, and just about every county visit I have made has been in a car. I plan to use some form of automobile -- if they still exist -- when Pam and I celebrate our 66th birthdays on Route 66.

Until then, shorter road trips will have to do, and the vicarious enjoyment of such photography projects as Scenes from the American Road from The Atlantic (which is a great font of good writing, especially for geographers). This splendid collection of photographs and accompanying thoughts was gathered from creative thinkers in a variety of fields, from comedy to philanthropy.

I am fortunate to have been on some of these very roads, and look forward to exploring more of them.

Near Chillicothe, Ohio. Jeni Britton Bauer, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

Friday, December 19, 2014

Coffee-Flavored Coffee

Pluggers 12/19/2014, Gary Brookins

Thanks to humorist Gary Brookins for a nice chuckle this morning, which I enjoyed over a cup of coffee-flavored coffee, prepared with attention to every detail.

My initial relationship to coffee was far different than it is now, and closer the the relationship most people have to it: as a caffeine vehicle. During my first year of college, I worked in the alumni fund-raising call center late into the night. The styrofoam cups of percolated Chock Full O'Nuts were not there for the flavor.

Even in graduate school, we knew nothing of coffee, and we owe completion of our degrees to endless bricks of Folger's. My favorite librarian Pamela explains, in fact, how we played a small role -- as human subjects in the experiment that led to the introduction of flavored coffees.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boston's Katrina

The day before pleading with the U.S. Olympic Committeeto bring the 2024 games to his city, Boston's Mayor Walsh announced that an alternative shelter had been found for the homeless people displaced by the sudden closing of this bridge in October. I recently wrote about this because it seemed to show a reckless disregard for the homeless people and other clients of social services on Boston's Long Island. Only this week did I learn just how severe that disregard had been. In its timeline accompanying the story, the Boston Globe describes the bridge's October 8 evacuation:
City engineer meets with MassDOT bridge inspection officials to seek guidance. The state experts are presented with documents showing that certain gusset plates have a "zero load rating" which means they cannot safely bear any weight. The city's consultant tells city employees that the bridge "needs to be closed immediately. This closure should happen by the end of the day." The city immediately begins evacuating the island -- using the bridge.
From the timeline I also learned contingency plans had included the ferry option that I suggested in my Short Shrift piece. Even before reading that contingency plans had been made but ignored, I was beginning to think of the Long Island story as Boston's Katrina. The evacuation in this case had no casualties, but the evacuees need not have been displaced at all. The city has spent two months trying to find the weakest NIMBY zones, and is pleased with itself for prolonging this ordeal only through mid-January.

When opponents of the Olympic bid argue that the money for the games would be better spent on schools, roads, and bridges, the apologists for the bid reply that the Olympics would "force" investment on infrastructure that might otherwise not be funded.

Given the failures -- so far -- at Long Island, this seems wishful thinking indeed.