Saturday, October 21, 2017

Advancing Science on Retreating Glaciers

This is a critical time for the world's retreating glaciers. In fact, it could be said that the most critical time -- when their retreat could have been arrested -- has already passed. Still, the status of glaciers are among the strongest indicators of climate change, and their loss is among its most dangerous consequences.

First, their role as indicators. Glaciers are long-term accumulations of frozen water (ice and snow), usually at high elevation. During particularly cold periods in the Pleistocene, continental glaciers were found at sea level, but in the Holocene epoch, glaciers have been strictly alpine. Wherever they are found, they represent a balance between a colder zone of accumulation -- in which more snow falls during a year than melts -- and a warmer zone of ablation, in which the opposite occurs.

The exact position of the nose of the glacier will fluctuate seasonally and over time, as this balance shifts. When the position of the nose at a given time of year is consistently moving upslope, the glacier is said to be retreating, indicating a steady warming. We would know that the planet is warming without these indicators, but the retreat of glaciers from Glacier National Monument to Kilimanjaro and Tibet to Cochabamba is evidence that one has to work pretty hard to ignore. (For those unfamiliar with Cochabamba, please see my posts Cochabamba Continued (2012), The Most Important Town in the Americas (2013), and Snowboarders Rescue Our Climate (2016 student guest blog).

It was in this context that I listened to Rob Schmitz' cogent reporting on the work of Chinese climate scientists who are documenting the retreat of the thousands of glaciers in that country. One of the excuses for the U.S. refusal to participate in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was that it did not require enough of China and other rapidly developing countries. Ironically, just as China has caught up to the United States as a contributor to the problem of climate change, it is stepping up to support the Paris Accord, even as the U.S. retreats.

In Impossible to Save, Schmitz accompanies scientists who know that the glaciers they study will not stop retreating; they hope, however, that their work will encourage changes that will slow down the pace of change. In this brief and well-organized report, they clearly describe not only the evidence of shrinkage but also its implications. Humans rely on glaciers in ways that few outside of alpine areas understand. They are the reservoirs that supply water and irrigate crops for many millions of people.

I have become very interested in glaciers as I teach about the geographies of coffee and tea, because both crops are threatened in some areas by the loss of glaciers. This was, in fact, to have been the subject of a course that I offered in partnership with a colleague who researches glacial retreat in Peru. Dr. Rob Hellström and I planned Coffee and Climate Change in Peru as a field course that would visit his research stations and communities of coffee farmers who are affected by many aspects of climate change. We did not enroll quite enough students to carry out the course, but we will try again to offer it in the near future.
Periglacial research station in Peru.
Photo: Dr. Rob Hellström

Texas Southmost Reporter

Kayla America Fuentes interviewing Cuban Alfredo "Rusty" Monsees at his home on the eponymous road in Brownsville Photo: Debbie Nathan.
When I was teaching at UTB-Texas Southmost College (now UT-RGV) , some of my students walked to class directly from their homes in Mexico. The fellow in this story grew up -- and continues to live -- in the tiny patch of Texas even farther south than THAT.

Kayla America Fuentes is a local teenager heard a lot of stories about him, and decided to do an interview. The result is an article whose unconventional title mentions the subject, the reporter, and the motivation for the reporting itself. The Old Man Who Calls Border Patrol on Immigrants, and the Teen Girl Who Asked Him Why shows that she is off to a great start as a journalist. She already has the curiosity, tenacity, and writing skills of a seasoned reporter.

Rather than try to summarize her work or comment on its implications, I encourage readers to read the article to the end. It gives us plenty to think about.


The map shows places named for two people mentioned in the story -- Mr. Monsees himself and Pancho Villa.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Professional Regions

"Not all who wander are lost"
~~ J.R.R. Tolkien, linguist, author, and honorary geographer

I have often said that if you enjoy being lost, you should travel with geographers. It works especially well if we are in a van. Last year four of us -- with three GPS units -- got lost going to a school we had been to before. But we learned so much local geography along the way, so we considered it a win.

It should come as no surprise, then, that geographers are not to be trusted with the drawing of regional boundaries. The American Association of Geographers (née Association of American Geographers) boast nine regional divisions, shown here:

Click to enlarge
Keeping in mind that regions are to geography as gravity is to physics: understanding regions is what we do, it is fascinating that this is what we have come up with.

I have been in all of nine of these regions, and have taught or studied geography in five of them. I first noticed something odd the first time I was involved in hosting one of the regional meetings. Professor George Strait had something to say about this --

That's right: I was leading field trips in the Arizona desert for a meeting of the Pacific Coast geographers. The excuse, I heard, was that two of the professors in my Tucson department enjoyed going to meetings in Hawaii as often as they could. I guess their pals in Nevada and Idaho felt the same way.

But that is not nearly all. From Arizona, I moved to Texas (about 100 miles south of George Strait's ranch, btw), where I attended a meeting of the Southwest AAG. The inclusion of Texas made sense, and I had already given up on Arizona, but Arkansas and Louisiana? I don't think so.

Some of the regions do make sense: Great Plains/Rocky Mountains is not a succinct name, but anybody who sees the name would know what states are included. Similarly, the subdivision of the former Great Lakes division makes sense, because there are so very many geography departments there. I am pretty sure there are at least two places to get a Ph.D. in geography in each state within each region. So the split makes sense, and although "Midwest" would have been a more conventional choice for a name, "Lakes" sounds nice, and it would have been quite messy to have "West Midwest" and "East Midwest." So we geographers did well with the middle of the country.

Back to the oddities, proceeding counterclockwise. At first glance, the Southeast makes sense, until we realize that it includes West Virginia, a state formed in 1863 precisely to get some parts of Virginia out of the south. We made the big time with this -- Wikipedia points out that AAG and the Census Bureau classify West Virginia this way, in its discussion of all the regions to which this state is sometimes assigned.

Next comes the Middle Atlantic division, which includes the place where I became a geographer (UMBC in Catonsville) and where I became a person (the erstwhile Columbia Hospital for Women in D.C.) There is nothing really wrong with this region -- it is in the middle of the Atlantic coast of the U.S. But it seems rather small -- just a state plus a city that used to be part of the very same state. It is a maritime state, but not so much on the Atlantic side. It has about 150 miles of Chesapeake Bay coastline, but only 31 miles on the Atlantic Ocean.

Next come the Middle States, crammed almost as far into the northeast corner as states can be, and actually bordering Canada!

Finally, our own NESTVAL -- both a division of the AAG and a separate, older society of its own: The New England and St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society (whose annual meeting I am missing this weekend, for only the second time in 20 years). "Where is the St. Lawrence Valley?" a student asked me yesterday. "Not on this map," I replied.

I was once the newsletter editor for NESTVAL, a position for which I volunteered because I was pretty good at putting together a decent-looking publication. I am not, however, any good at keeping track of membership lists in ambiguous circumstances, and so I failed spectacularly at the newsletter mailing list. Members of the other 8 divisions are simply the AAG members with mailing addresses in those divisional boundaries. NESTVAL membership also includes those who are AAG or CAC-ACG with addresses in certain parts of Canada, plus anybody who simply decides to show up and pay NESTVAL dues. So although NESTVAL looks like an area on the map of the United States shown above, it is much more like a state of mind.

So anybody needing to have regions drawn, feel free to call on us professionals!


One fellow geographer who read this decided to look for other regional schemes. He was pleased to find that the regions used for reporting purposes in the National Climate Assessment (which as of this posting is still available to the public, despite the current project of silencing government scientists -- but that is a subject for another post) follows a pattern more familiar to the general public.
Click to enlarge
Another geographer recently shared this map of the United States, if it might look if a professional design team had been consulted.
Click to enlarge

Regionalization is an equally fraught term as it applies to municipal government in Massachusetts -- home to 351 cities and towns, with an unknown number of school districts!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Puerto Rico: Open-ended Crisis

I started this blog post just after Hurricane Maria made landfall, as it became clear that an unprecedented onslaught of back-to-back major hurricanes was to be compounded by unprecedented neglect of a natural disaster on U.S. territory.

I heard the phrase "open-ended crisis" in a discussion on National Public Radio, as I began to gather links and to write. As I kept a growing number of tabs open on my Mac, this post grew in length and complexity -- and somehow I eventually lost all of that writing. I did manage to keep most of the links that I had found most instructive, though, so I am going to share them here with minimal commentary. Unfortunately, they are going to be relevant for a very long time to come.

First, one video recommendation:

For U.S. mainlanders who do not know much about Puerto Rico -- which is to say, most U.S. mainlanders -- I highly recommend the 2006 film ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas! (I'm Puerto Rican, Just So You Know) by the comedienne Rosie Perez as a starting point. It is a personal journey of discovery for her and some of her family members, who themselves did not know some important elements of the relationship between the United States and its biggest colony. The film is on Netflix DVD only, and on YouTube (above).

And now some print and radio links. Where possible, I lead with the names of the journalists involved, because they are an essential and maligned element of our democracy.

First, about the storm before the storm:

Vann Newkirk, The Atlantic (published in June 2017): Puerto Rico's Plebiscite to Nowhere
The territory’s recent vote in favor of statehood faces long odds in Congress

Michelle Chen, The Nation: The Bankers Behind Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis

Maria Fabrizio, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (June 2016): Future of Puerto Rico Remains in Limbo as Congress Delays Decision and U.S. Supreme Court Entrenches Colonial Legacy in Puerto Rico

And then the storm itself

Brian Resnick and Eliza Barclay on Vox: What Every American Needs to Know About Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Disaster

Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post: White House is restricting lawmakers from visiting Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, aides say  and also, Sad suspicions about his motivations

Tyler Cohen, Denver Post: Puerto Rico's American Dream Died in the Storm

Jenny Marder, PBS News Hour: After First Tour of Puerto Rico, Top General Calls Damage "The Worst He's Ever Seen"

Rebecca Shapiro, Huffpost U.S. News: Katrina Commander Swears On Live TV Over Puerto Rico Response

Carolina Moreno, Huffpost Latino Voices: Puerto Rico Governor Calls White House After Trump’s Unsettling FEMA Tweets (Ricardo Rosselló wants the islanders to be treated equally to any other U.S. citizens after a disaster.)

Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg View: Trump to Executive Branch: Don't Worry About Puerto Rico

Sheila Norton, Verified Politics: Trump Just Reinstated Restrictions On Hurricane Aid To Puerto Rico

David Ferguson, Raw Story: ‘Stop the genocide’: San Juan mayor begs UN and UNICEF for help Trump won’t give Puerto Rico. The word "genocide" should never be used lightly, but this situation is far from light, and if this were taking place in any other country, it is exactly the word we would be using.

Conlan, Washington Polity: FEMA Just issued a Powerful Statement against Trump on Puerto Rico

Timothy Gardner, Reuters: Senator McCain Introduces Legislation to Kill the Jones Act in Puerto Rico

David Dayen, The Intercept: Puerto Rico Relief Bill Cancels $16 Billion in Debt -- But not for Puerto Rico

Jenna Johnson, Washington Post: Many Trump voters who got hurricane relief in Texas aren’t sure Puerto Ricans should. This article describes a Texas couple who split their vote in November, and who have split opinions now. They both benefited from a $14,000 FEMA check, despite having no flood insurance. But along party lines within their household, one thinks that Puerto Rico deserves more help and the other thinks they should not.

Shannon Collins, U.S. Department of Defense News: Puerto Ricans Represented Throughout U.S. Military History. I sought out this story after reading the president's audacious claim that the DoD would be leaving the island soon. Not only does the DoD have permanent bases on the island, we learned from Rosie Perez that Puerto Ricans are among the Americans most likely to serve in the military. In fact, the Commonwealth status was contrived in part to make sure that Puerto Ricans could serve in World War I. It is dastardly to even mention the possibility of removing troops from the island while its people are still dying.

Michael Tackett, New York TimesAn Exodus From Puerto Rico Could Remake Florida Politics. Denial of statehood to Puerto Rico has been entirely driven by partisan politics, so it is interesting to contemplate how the extreme mistreatment of the island's people could have unintended consequences for the political balance.

Photo: Angel Valentin
Mandalit Del Barco and Lauren Migaki, NPR: Puerto Rico's 'Singing Newspapers' Tell A Story Of Resilience

Corinne Segal, PBS Newshour: Volunteers are helping Puerto Rico from home, with a map anyone can edit

Near the villa we rented Photo: JHB
To end this with something positive, I include my photos from my family's first visit to Puerto Rico, which was in 2016 and Help for Puerto Rico, about a former student of mine who worked with his friend and colleagues to bring help directly to some of the people of Puerto Rico.

These Trucks Don't Float

My grandfather climbed poles for Ma Bell his whole adult life. And after hurricanes, he would travel to restore phones and electricity -- climbing poles by hand. 

Weston Tolls

It's easier now with bucket trucks, but not exactly easy. I remember driving through the town of Weston a few years ago, just before a major storm was to hit the Boston area. As I approached an overpass that connects Interstate 90 (Mass Turnpike and NY State Thruway) to Boston's ring road 128, I saw a caravan like this one pouring into Boston from the west. 
I knew what those men and women would be doing for us, and that they had traveled all night to do it. I almost wept at the sight.

When this happens on an ISLAND, even more effort is needed. Ships, cargo planes, whatever it takes. BEFORE Irma and BEFORE Maria, those trucks should have been in motion, headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. We should do the same for other islands in our hemisphere, but we absolutely must do it for those islands that are U.S. territory.

Instead, such efforts were hindered by red tape and a century-old law to protect the profits of shipping countries.

I am astounded at the heroic work of local and federal employees on the ground in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but also disgusted that they are not given full support by Congress or the White House, as such workers would be in any mainland territory, from Boston to Brownsville, in hurricane season.

The government is getting away with this neglect -- which has genocidal overtones -- precisely because geographic literacy is so poor that many constituents either:

a) Don't know these are U.S. territorie
b) Don't care
c) Don't know how islands work, or
d) all of the above
Our feeble response to Puerto Rico is an indictment of our society in many ways, of which our neglect of geographic education is just one.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Emotional Skepticism

I am not a librarian -- not nearly well-organized enough for that -- but I have picked up a lot of librarian values from three decades spent with a librarian who is not only an extraordinary practitioner of the bibliothecary arts, but also a scholar of knowledge itself. Lately, her scholarship on information literacy in general has led her to collaboration on empirical research into the "fake news" phenomenon in particular.

That jarring phrase has also had the attention of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, which decided to devote its Annual Forum to the topic this year. This turned out to be a perfect date for a geographer and librarian, especially since the forum was to be held in the Boston Public Library!

The event was entitled What's New About Fake News?, and was in the form of a panel discussion, with journalist Sasha Pfeiffer (of both the Boston Globe and WBUR) serving as moderator. The panel was very well chosen -- and would no doubt have been even more compelling had Professor Jelani Cobb not needed to cancel.
First lesson: Let's not use this phrase.
L-R: Sasha Pfeiffer, Marnie Shure, Charles Ferguson, Claire Wardle
The discussion was wide-ranging, with insights both alarming and constructive. I was grateful for the many new ways of thinking about our current predicament that the panelists and moderators shared, and even for most of the comments and questions from the audience. It was information scholar Claire Wardle, however, who gave us the most readily applicable ideas for beginning to work our way out of the impasse that has been created by dangerous levels of disregard for facts and distrust of sources.

Being Specific 

First, even though the phrase "fake news" was in the title of the day's program, she admonished listeners and fellow panelists to avoid using the phrase altogether, and after a couple of missteps, they actually managed to do so. Referring to the "weaponizing" of communication strategies, she asserted that the phrase "fake news" is used primarily to attack journalism, so journalists should refuse to participate in their own denigration by using it.

Rather, she said, since the term can be used to refer to several VERY different kinds of messages, we should simply indicate which kind is being discussed. To whit:
  • misinformation is something presented as a fact that is not correct; another word is "mistake"
  • disinformation is misinformation that is presented deliberately, with the intention to mislead those who hear or read it, or perhaps to foster discord
  • satire is mistaken information in the form of a joke, which both its creators and its consumers understand to be carefully constructed to shed light on some deeper truth; we were fortunate to have fellow panelist Marnie Shure of The Onion to provide a much deeper understanding of this important kind of commentary
  • reports that simply make the powerful feel uncomfortable are the most likely to be called "fake news," but they are not, in fact, fake
By framing the concept in this way at the very beginning, Wardle helped the entire panel to speak with greater precision about the new ways in which information really is being manipulated.

The "takeaway" from this part of the discussion is that any time we see the phrase "fake news," we should try to assign it to its proper category; this will help us to understand what is worth sharing and what is worth getting alarmed about.

Slow It Down

Which leads me to Wardle's second, perhaps more important suggestion. As someone who has worked on social-media campaigns at a very high level, she understands both how erroneous information gets propagated and the harm it can do. She suggests two ways of fostering what she terms "emotional skepticism" that I think she intended as safeguards within social-media operating systems. The can, for now, simply be seen as guidelines for individual users of social media.
  • Don't share anything before reading it to the end.
  • Don't share anything to which you have an emotional reaction, until you've waited two minutes to calm down.
I try -- and sometimes fail -- to do both of these things. 


In response to a cogent question from the audience, the panelists discussed the opacity of the algorithms that are used to shape each person's newsfeeds and search-engine results. The major technology companies know things about us that we do not know ourselves, and they feed information to us based on those things they know. The ways in which both things are accomplished are opaque to the users, and all of the panelists argued that making these algorithms at least somewhat transparent would give us some defense against being manipulated -- either as individuals or entire electorates.

Until that day of transparency comes, I have a suggestion of my own. We do not know the details of the algorithms at work behind the systems we use, but we know that they all tend to reinforce confirmation bias. We are increasingly unable to understand each other because there is so little overlap among the things we read and listen to. It is up to us, therefore, to seek out information sources -- and people -- with as wide a variety of viewpoints as we can manage.

The more we know, the harder we are to fool. It was fitting that the MassHumanties director ended the program by encouraging us to draw on the expertise of librarians when trying to ascertain the veracity of something we are asked to believe. I am reminded of the words of Congressman John Lewis, as I quoted him on this blog almost a year ago:

Friday, October 13, 2017

Pronounced thea-een

Tea and coffee provide stimulation by way of a compound found in both plants and in the respective beverages produced from their leaves and seeds, respectively. The stimulant effect differs between the two, however, and also differs considerably according to the way tea, in particular, is processed.

Image: Tea Class
The differences between tea and coffee is substantial enough, in fact, that when caffeine was first isolated in tea in 1827, it was thought to be a different compound and was known as theine. The Oxford English dictionary provides two alternate pronunciations of this awkward word, using both proper phonetic symbols and recordings.
I learned of this distinction from the Cisco Brew article Caffeine and Tea, which explains not only why caffeine behaves differently in tea and coffee, but also how caffeine levels vary according to various tea preparations. The article alludes to preparations (white, green, oolong, black), origins, and varietals, notably sinensis and assamica. I mistakenly read this as suggesting that assamica is a separate species; in seeking clarification I found the excellent article Camellia sinensis on Tea Class, from which I lifted the lovely photo of a tea flower to the right.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Through the Wall

Many who call for the building of a border wall do not realize that it already exists. A recent project by JR Artist recently called attention to this division that has already been imposed, through an installation in Tecate/Tecate.

One important image is of a baby overlooking the wall. Babies, of course, do not understand such barriers.
Image: JR Artist
As someone who spent seven years living near the border, I am even more intrigued -- and encouraged -- by the picnic that was held as part of the celebration of this art. A band ("conjunto" in Spanish, or "together") was divided by the wall but played together for those who had assembled for the meal.
Image: JR Artist -- be sure to read his description and the comments
In hurricanes, the term "eye wall" refers to the very turbulent ring of clouds surrounding the calm center of the storm. The picnickers who ring this eye are exhibiting calm within a storm of a different kind.

The artist and an agent were able, near the end of this multi-day exhibit, to share a cup of tea.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Praia Mais Famosa

While watching the marvelous movie Landfill Harmonic (more on this in a later post), I noticed that a pivotal moment in the lives of the young musicians from the margins of Asunción was the opportunity to bring their music to another country. That the country was Brazil -- and no less an iconic locale than Ipanema Beach in Rio -- made it even more exhilarating for these young people.
Photo: Ipanema Inn
Until that moment in the film, I had not really thought about what it means to live in a land-locked country. The Western Hemisphere has only two -- Paraguay and Bolivia -- and I had thought about the disadvantages only in terms of economic and military limitations. But of course it also means that these entire countries are populated by people who can only go to a real beach if they travel internationally. Since most people never leave their home countries, this means that the landlocked might pass their entire lives without the deeply profound experience of standing on the edge of land and sea.

In the film, this is expressed in very simple terms, as the teens, many of them wearing swimsuits purchased just for the occasion, run and skip, chanting "Vamos a la playa! Vamos a la playa!"

Their simple song reminded me of one of the twentieth century's great songs, named for the same beach. A professor of Brazilian history once told our class, "If your grandparents were sophisticated, they probably owned an album of bossa nova music." In my case, it was my great-grandparents who came to mind. Though I do not remember hearing the music in their home, I am certain they had at least one example, and it would be "Garota de Ipanema."

"The Girl from Ipanema" -- as it is known in English -- is the perfect bridge between American jazz and Brazilian bossa nova, as the definitive recording was made by musicians who were well established in both genres -- Stan Getz and João Gilberto. Just seven weeks before I was born, these three were in New York City working on what would become -- for me -- the definitive recording of the song.

As described in Lydia Hutchinson's informative account on Performing Songwriter, they decided to record one verse in English, and also realized that João's wife Astrud was best qualified to perform it. I still prefer that original recording, in both languages, but Hutchinson's article includes this fully English version with only Astrud singing. Recorded in 1964, it has has over 18,000,000 views since uploaded to YouTube in 2009. On average, 10 people are listening to this particular recording all the time.

Hutchinson's reporting dispels a misimpression I had, which was that the young woman -- the "garota" or "girl" -- who inspired the song was languishing somewhere in obscurity, perhaps unaware of what she had started. This is far from the case. Though Helô Pinheiro was unable to collect any royalties from the song itself, she did win legal battles that have allowed her and even her daughter to parlay the fame into success in modeling and other professions.
The song has been covered by more artists than any other song, except for McCartney's "Yesterday." A quick Google search, in fact, might lead one to believe that "The Girl from Ipanema" is mainly a Frank Sinatra song.

And I almost forgot: Ipanema is a place, so we need a map. Immediately to the west of Ipanema is the favela of Rocinha -- one of the most notorious neighborhoods on the planet. When I took a private tour of the city a number of years ago, I could barely convince my driver to go there mid-day. As a geographer, I was equally happy to visit both neighborhoods.

*For the title of this post, I use the Portuguese phrase for "The Most Famous Beach," which in Spanish would be "La Playa Más Famosa."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Three Coffees, Hold the Goat

Image: Dustin Ranem, New City Times
Most coffee fiends (and mavens) with an internet connection have seen some version of the quote above, perhaps noting the irony of the pejorative reference to the sacred animal associated with coffee's origin myth -- Kaldi's goats.

I have always read this as a quote -- perhaps apocryphal -- in the voice of the great composer himself. I can imagine him requiring quite a bit of coffee in order to focus on his great works. I learned only today that the original quote refers to bowls, not cups, of coffee -- and more importantly that it is in the voice of a fictional character, a young woman named Lieschen.

She is part of a coffee cantata (or small opera) that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for friends at Café Zimmerman -- one of at least eight Leipzig coffee shops that were important to the composer.

The full libretto of Cantata BMV 221 is available in English, and various recordings are available on YouTube. My favorite is this version, which is staged in a cafe full of exquisite old coffee equipment!

The Bach Coffee Opera listicle describes the context in which Bach developed this work, and delves into the role of gender in the work itself and in broader coffee culture of the time.