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!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Welcome Back, Drivers

I am very pleased that my coffee and geography outreach efforts bring me to Worcester with increasing frequency, as I collaborate with students at Worcester State University and Clark University (I do not really know faculty members at either place, but I know plenty of students and alumni at both).

The second largest city in New England is fascinating in many ways, including its unique approach to surface transportation. On the way back from WSU today, I decided to avoid the potholes of Route 9, and take the "highway" option -- Route 146 to I-90.

Negotiating this interchange, a question came to mind...

Which is the greatest factor of the three that define Massachusetts driving:

  • indolent drivers,
  • miserly maintenance budgets, or perhaps
  • highway engineers who graduated from here:

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Dying to Vote

(I posted the following on Facebook on April 4, 2016, based on a conversation I had with my class of future geography teachers that afternoon.)

It is a very appropriate day to mention Selma, a film that captures an important aspect of what Rev. King was trying to do.
One of the last photos of Dr. King, April 3, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
With Hosea Williams, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
This balcony is now open to the public.
I noticed several things about this film when we watched it recently. First and foremost was the importance of voting among the goals of the civil-rights movement. The violence associated with Selma resulted from the segregationists being genuinely afraid of black voters. It is a shame to see the Voting Rights Act being disregarded in 2016,and to see people opt not to vote.

I also could not help notice that secessionist flags (that is, confederate flags) were featured prominently by both the governor and ordinary thugs. Again, I am astonished to see these flags flying -- even in my northern town -- in 2016. It only means one thing at this point.

I also noticed the importance of broad coalitions and a focus on issues rather than party when trying to change the world. Gov. Wallace and President Johnson were, after all, members of the same political party at the time of their standoff in Selma!

Finally, I was reminded that many of these key events took place in my lifetime -- not all that long ago.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Finnish Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism is the increasingly misguided notion that the U.S. is best at everything simply because it is the U.S. It is a tribal instinct that encourages the brusque dismissal of critiques that admit of ways in which life might be better somewhere else. "Love it or leave it," is the refrain of  this peculiar worldview.

Howard Gardner is a U.S. educator who did leave it -- for a professional opportunity -- spent five months in Finland with his family. He can now share his perspective on why Finland has the best schools.
Source: Lonely Planet
No place is actually best at everything of course, but Finland is consistently identified as the very best in education. It should not be surprising that this is accomplished mainly by valuing educators -- holding them in higher regard even than politicians, consultants, and publishers of odious testing regimes.

Another key is a leap of faith -- counterintuitive, perhaps -- by which inattention to frequent testing leads directly to excellent results on annual tests. Who ensures that the students are learning? The same people who took care of this when I was a kid in a very different United States: teachers. Not the accountability industry or ETS: teachers.

Another key: recess outdoors. While many (most?) U.S. children no longer spend 15 minutes a day outside, their Finnish counterparts are outside 15 minutes out of each hour.
In the U.S., parents allowing this sort of behavior (walking to school) could actually be arrested for endangerment, because of television-induced misconceptions about child safety.
How do teachers in Finland avoid being stifled by bureaucrats? According to the article, it is because educational leaders protect children from politicians. In the U.S., children are pawns in games that feature educational leaders feeding teachers to the politicians who set school (and university) budgets. Teachers who should be -- figuratively -- driving the education bus are thrown under it instead.

I actually know a fair number of politicians, and I spend time talking with them about education. Individually, they respect teachers and want the best for children. After all, most of them once were children and many of them have children or grandchildren in school. As individuals, many of them also respect teachers. After all, they are successful people, and all successful people have teachers to thank for at least some of their success.

Collectively, though, something goes awry, and even well-intentioned legislators underfund education while over-regulating it. For us to catch up with Finland, this needs to change.


Finland's lead in education rings true for me, as I did a bit of work with a Finnish social scientist when I was in graduate school. He was more articulate in English (his second or third language) than most people who speak it as a first language.