Friday, April 29, 2011

Coffee Books without Tables

Holiday shopping idea for your
favorite coffee/library enthusiasts
As she often does, my favorite librarian recently introduced me to some literature on coffee. More precisely, she introduced me to literature on coffee that was in turn identified by a very interesting kind of librarian: a blogger who promotes the virtues of private libraries.

Some of the books -- and collectible cards -- in this article are already part of my private coffee library, but many are new to me, and I am downright covetous of a few, such as the expansive bibliography shown above.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

National Security: From Containment to Sustainment

The United States is in a pivotal era, as we grapple with the close of a century in which our dominance of the planet -- whether seen as a good thing or not -- could be taken for granted. We continue to consume, pollute, and buy weapons out of all proportion to our population. Indications are mounting, though, that our position in the world is changing fundamentally. Somewhere between elation that undeserved dominance is ending and panic that this means the end of prosperity and security, a middle path must be found in which we adjust to some new realities.

In the tradition of George Kennan's "Mr. X" Long Telegram of 1964, two Pentagon officers have released a National Strategic Narrative under the name Mr. Y. I first learned of their report from Tom Ashbrook's On Point broadcast. Several cogent remarks from the report illustrate why I consider this a very important and timely document. Writing as private individuals but clearly with the support of senior Pentagon officials, the authors are telling simple truths that many in both parties have resisted.

A sampling illustrates:

Dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable source of energy. (p4)
Without our values, America has no credibility. (p6)
Perhaps the most important first step we can take, as part of a National Strategy, is to identify which of these resources are renewable and sustainable, and which are finite and diminishing.  (p7)
We can no longer expect the ingenuity and labor of past generations to sustain our growth as a nation for generations to come. (p7)

This last claim is rightly made, I believe, in the context of investing in the most valuable of our renewable resources: our youth. The authors go beyond the usual platitudes about the importance of education, to promote a new attitude toward it, and toward the value of work itself.

John Norris wrote in his introduction of the Mr. Y piece for Foreign Policy (emphasis mine):
Yet, it is investments in America's long-term human resources that have come under the fiercest attack in the current budget environment. As the United States tries to compete with China, India, and the European Union, does it make sense to have almost doubled the Pentagon budget in the last decade while slashing education budgets across the country?
 Norris also highlights the report's finding that Americans have over-reacted to Islamist extremism. He and the authors are absolutely correct: the 9/11/01 terrorists knew exactly which buttons to push, and in many ways our country reacted exactly as they hoped. As the report authors write -- and remember, these are a Navy Captain and a Marine Colonel -- they have turned the United States into a paranoid country.

We have squandered the global sympathy that the 2001 attacks inspired (see my Managua memorial photos for an example), but there is time to re-enter the community of nations as a responsible participant. The authors continue:
We are, in the truest sense, part of an interdependent strategic ecosystem, and our interests converge with those of people in virtually every corner of the world.   We must remain cognizant of this, and reconcile our domestic and foreign policies as being complementary and largely congruent. (p9)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Where's the Beef?

I am in the unusual position of working at a university that promotes international education in many ways, but does not require its students to study a foreign language. Eventually we will change that policy, but meanwhile I am always looking for ways to encourage students to study languages.

Several reasons presented themselves recently, as evidence continues to mount of Brazil's growing economic importance. While the United States has been resting on its laurels, Brazil has been applying the lessons of hard work and education to grow its economy. OK, it is not all virtue: Brazilian capitalists occasionally apply some ruthlessness learned in the North as well. Whatever the reasons, as Brazil steadily moves up among the top-ten economies, specific examples of its importance to the United States are likely to become more common.

Almost three years ago, Brazilian Carlos Brito became CEO of a conglomerate that owns Anheuser-Busch. This Bud's for voce! As revealed in his Wall Street Journal interview, Brito is thrifty, hard-working, well-educated, and bilingual. It is interesting that in the "comments" page for the WSJ article, readers debate the relative merits of craft beer and mass-market beer, missing the MUCH LARGER lessons about education, work, and economic security.

More recently, NPR reported that a Brazilian company that started in the 1950s as a supplier of beef to workers building the new capital in Brasilia has now become the biggest meat producer in the United States. And the world. Again, as with any story of rapid corporate growth, many important concerns arise. A company that slaughters 90,000 head of cattle a day cannot be thought of as socially and environmentally responsible, for example.

An important lesson that can be gleaned from both stories, however, is that anybody in the United States who is in a position to learn Portuguese should do so. Fortunately, every student at my university (and throughout eastern Massachusetts) is in a position to do just that.

Monday, April 25, 2011

New Islands Discovered!

Gurupi Islands -- Google image from

The title above is attention-grabbing and a little inaccurate ... on purpose. A lot of information about the world gets presented to us in ways that are meant to grab attention, and it is good to develop the habit of comparing headlines and introductions to more detailed information, in order to determine what the real stories are.

In this case, the real story -- as reported on Live ScienceCoastal Care, and many other sources -- is that a list of one type of island has been dramatically revised as a result of both improved technology and changes in outlook. Specifically, a list of the 1,492 barrier islands throughout the world was compiled in 2001, based on the satellite image data available at the time, and on what kinds of settings scientists believe it possible to find them. A more recent study used higher-resolution satellites, locally navigation and topographic maps, and a different way of thinking about the islands. The result: the list now has 2,149 islands, but the list and the thinking behind it are new ... not the islands themselves.

The finding is important because barrier islands are both very important and very vulnerable. Thousands of miles of islands protect coastlines throughout the world from storms, which are becoming a greater threat as sea levels rise. The islands, however, are dynamic systems that depend upon fresh inputs of sand that are easily disrupted by construction, land use, and -- ironically -- structures meant to protect coastal properties.

Most humans live near coastlines, and those who can afford to will often try to live as close as possible, making the real estate markets on barrier islands among the most competitive on the planet. The attraction is hard to resist: part of my honeymoon was spent on Ocean City, Maryland -- a mere sliver of sand protecting Maryland from Atlantic storms!

Paul Smith photography

Understanding Race

The Museum of Science in Boston is a terrific place for learners of all ages -- and learning about many subjects. It truly is one of the great treasures of the region in which I live. Saturday I had the privilege of visiting a temporary installation that was timely for me in a number of ways. RACE: Are We So Different? is at the MOS only through May 15; I encourage all my local friends and students to see it if at all possible -- and to allow plenty of time for its engaging activities and exhibits.

The experience was timely for me in two ways. Over the past several months, my (mostly white, suburban) UU church in Bridgewater has been actively involved in a growing partnership with a (mostly black, urban) Baptist church in nearby Brockton. The two congregations are located only a few miles apart, and are enjoying the conscious exploration of what unites and divides the communities in which we reside. It was in this context that I immersed myself -- along with some university colleagues and students -- in the museum's application of anthropology, biology, geography, and medicine to the question of what exactly race is.

The exhibit was timely in a second, somewhat more prosaic way. In recent discussions of demography with second-year geography students, we turned our attention to the subject of race in the U.S. Census. I have posted a lot of articles about the Census during the current "season," including some about race. I was stumped by a very basic questions the students asked, though: Why does the Census include race at all? And the close corollary: Should it continue to do so?

I went to the exhibit, naively hoping to find an answer to one or both of these questions. In fact, I came away with more and deeper questions, but only very partial answers. Before I realized photographs were forbidden, I snapped the one above, of a bunch of people posing in t-shirts. My camera phone being what it is, the point of the shirts needs explaining: each person is wearing a shirt with three different "decade" dates over the past two centuries. Each date is followed by the description of race or ethnicity that person would have chosen on the census for that year. Every person has at least two -- and many three -- designations. The exhibit includes some interesting questions about what to do now, and the implications of continuing, modifying, or eliminating the questions.

The installation's online companion web site is extensive, and I look forward to exploring it more fully. It includes an interesting exercise related to the census discussion above. I was able to complete the race/ethnicity question for myself as if I were a resident of about ten different countries; I did not get the same answer each time!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Against the World

I created this montage shortly after my 2003 visit to Cuba, taking the photos from public sources and the ideas from a political cartoon I had seen at least a couple of administrations earlier. Yes, I have been to Cuba. As a resident of "the freest country on earth," this is one freedom I was very lucky to enjoy, thanks to a compromise that allows the freedom to a few, in exchange for keeping it off-limits to most. In 2004 -- desperate to widen the margin of the Florida "vote" -- George W. Bush took away most academic licenses, so even the sliver of freedom to travel has been reduced.

The anachronisms and paradoxes of U.S.-Cuba relations are manifest in a series of Cuba photographs collected for The Big Picture, the Boston Globe's new blog celebrating the vital work of photojournalists throughout the world. The 31 photographs -- most recent but some vintage -- tell a variety of stories, which is exactly the point. The high wall that successive U.S. administrations have erected between the people of the United States and Cuba mean that enormous potential for understanding is lost -- in both directions. The photo below, for example, shows a group of women gathered as dissidents within Cuba, while another introduces the viewer to dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez . It is difficult to imagine how isolating their country helps foster democratic movements of this kind.

A caption for another photo in the collection mentions that in October 2010, the United States joined Israel in opposing a United Nations resolution that called for the end of the embargo. As the Associated Press reported at the time (as distributed by the Christian Science Monitor),  a similar result had been reached 19 times in a row, with the U.S. convincing only its most dependent ally to vote with us and three additional allies (apparently also fairly dependent) to abstain from the vote. Aside from these five, all the other countries in the world -- 187 of them -- agreed on the resolution. This is not a resolution about the "goodness" or "badness" of one-party rule in Cuba. Such a question would spark much greater debate. Almost everybody in the world agrees, however, that the embargo does more harm than good.

Perhaps the case could have been made when Eisenhower or Kennedy was president, but President Obama has not offered an explanation of why Cuba should continue to be the only country in the world to which ordinary citizens of the United States (and some other nationals holding U.S. visas) do not have the freedom to travel.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Teaching Profession

The focus of this blog is environmental geography, broadly conceived. As a teacher and a teacher of teachers, however, I include occasional observations about the noble but much-maligned profession.

Today's Letters to the Editor in the Boston Globe included an excellent letter from retired teacher David Amirault. I am taking the liberty of including the full text, since letters often disappear from news sites after a while, and I consider this a "keeper." 
I CAN’T imagine any reputable airline asking pilots to help out at the ticket counter or assist in serving drinks. I’ve never heard of a hospital assigning physicians to empty wastebaskets or provide building security between appointments.
Yet every day we see teachers heading out to recess or bus duty, keeping order in the cafeteria, and policing corridors and bathrooms. Maybe this model made sense at one time, but it doesn’t take an honor student to see something wrong with the current picture.
While the movers and shakers of school reform expect ever-increasing student test scores and seem to value linking teacher pay to “merit’’ (whatever that is), then isn’t it time to look seriously at the efficiency of how we use a teacher’s time?
Expectations for teachers in 2011 should include a significant reduction in housekeeping tasks. Planning, conferring, and research during non-instructional time seem more likely to aid teachers in helping kids than having to deal with the daily hassles of nonprofessional duties.
David Amirault Amesbury 
At a time when professional educators are constantly buffeted by self-appointed experts, many of whom seek positions of management over public servants, even though they disdain public service. Small-government zealots insist on "accountability" and then create large-government bureaucracies in vain attempts to measure the unmeasurable.

Some of the online comments are generally supportive and offer a few interesting considerations. For example, in small markets, airline pilots do take on more mundane tasks. Some of the non-classroom duties do also provide teachable moments. As someone who spends a lot of time in schools of all sizes, I think scale matters. In some schools, lunch or bus duty is large-scale, rushed, and chaotic, and should be treated as a specialty of its own. If time and space allow for more leisurely lunches and transition times, classroom teachers may well make constructive use of the time.

The key is to respect both the classroom professionals who need time for preparation, research, reflection, and renewal and the work of people who are sometimes called "paraprofessionals" and whose contributions are equally important to productive learning environments.

The letter also reminds me of other comparisons I make between educators and other professionals. Extreme caution with respect to student privacy, for example, puts professors in the role of physicians who are not given a patient's file. Cavalier administrations that exclude faculty from policy decisions put professors in the role of law partners whose firm has been taken over by an outside agency.

Teachers whose preparation time is not valued are like actors given no time for rehearsal. Jack Nicholson is among Hollywood's most prolific actors (and one of my favorites). His filmography lists "only" 75 credits over a 50-year period, and even when he stars, he is "only" acting about half of the running time of each film. Would anybody seriously argue, though, that Jack works only an hour or two a year?

Somaliland Neighborhood Watch

Kabir Dhanji for NPR
As even casual news listeners know by now, several locational factors combine to make Somalia the world headquarters of piracy on the high seas. Conditions of health, education, and poverty are so severe and so difficult to measure that Somalia does not even have a Human Development Index ranking. That misery is common on a point of land situated near one of the world's most important sea lanes has resulted in piracy becoming a common way of life, and in some communities harboring pirates because of the riches their ransoms can bring. And although the results are sometimes violent, many shipping firms and their insurers treat the payments as a cost of doing business, amortized over billions of dollars worth of goods. (Some individual ships carry enough cargo to make a truck caravan 200 miles long, so even a $9,000,000 ransom can be absorbed from time to time.)

Somalia is, in many ways, the razor's edge of the growing global wealth gap.

Having posted on piracy a few times before, I was not really planning to do so again, until I heard two of the three parts of an NPR series on efforts to curb Somaliland. At first I thought -- foolishly -- that a reporter was erroneously using an archaic name for the country. As the report makes clear, however, Somalia barely is a country, but within that country are three distinct regions. Residents of Somaliland, along the north coast, consider it to be a sovereign nation, and are working against pirates along the Gulf of Aden.

As reported by Frank Langfitt, the national identity and sense of duty lead coastal residents to patrol the shore, and a map of pirate attacks does show that activity within the Gulf of Aden is clustered along the coast of Yemen, not Somaliland. According to Norwegian professor Stig Hansen, Somaliland resists the pirate stereotype, and is hoping that their resistance leads of the world to recognize it as an independent nation.

Northern Charm

As we noted in our Celebrating the States blog last year, I was born in that city that President Kennedy dryly noted for its "northern charm" and "southern efficiency." Both of my parents and I were born there because northern Virginia -- then part of the rural South -- in those years had no maternity ward. My younger brother was born in Fairfax just a year after I would, and now the entire region is a model of suburban sprawl and development.

After spending my middle school years in Kansas City, I returned to the DC area, this time in Annapolis, Maryland -- by then the southernmost part of the metropolitan North. It was not until many years later, however, that I actually moved north of the Mason-Dixon line: JFK was speaking both culturally and latitudinally when he placed the capital of the Union in Dixie.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Will Convenience Kill Coffee?

When people find out that I am a coffee enthusiast, they are often led to ask one of a few common questions. The most common used to be, "What do you think of Starbucks?" (I few of my blog posts have mentioned the company in various contexts, but I do not have a single answer.) Almost as common is "What do you think of Dunkin' Donuts?" (Here I have both a smattering of blog posts and a standard answer.)

In recent months, these questions have been replaced by "What do you think of the Keurig?" Initially, I tried to be positive, because Keurig is owned by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a growing regional roaster that I believe to be committed to ethical sourcing of coffee. I have met GMCR employees in Nicaragua, and one of my best coffee-farmer friends routinely wears a GMCR hat. (It is not just the hat -- I've met GMCR people in his house.) Besides, the Keurig provides flexibility, and gives people the option of fair-trade coffee at their local hairdresser or garage. What could be wrong with that?

Still, I had misgivings about the waste and the cost. An article on the blog of North Carolina-based Muddy Dog Roasting helped me turn the corner. Muddy Dog argues persuasively that the Keurig could be the beginning of the end for great coffee. I hope this is wrong, but we are moving rapidly beyond the slippery slope, as I am now seeing Dunkin' Donuts and even Folger's in materials from Green Mountain. These are not good signs, especially as the convenience of the machine is lulling people into a willingness to pay $20 to $30 a pound for mediocre or even bad coffee.

NOTE: Right after I posted this in April, an online Keurig retailer offered to commercialize my main coffee page. I would not and could not have done it anyway, but I found it amusing that the offer came right after I had finally come down from my Keurig fence-sitting. More recently, the blogger Caffeinated Calm -- who has considerably more coffee experience than I do -- offered a deeper critique of both Keurig and its parent company.

November 2011 update: Back in March the blog Dear Coffee, I Love you has provided an even more detailed critique, entitled Love Keurig? Nope.

Mapping Japan's Quake Damage

Japan is situated at the convergence of three major tectonic plates, which created the islands themselves and has made Japan and its people accustomed to earthquakes. In fact, Japan is among the countries of the world best prepared for both earthquakes and tsunamis, making the devastation of the 9.0 quake on March 11 all the more shocking. Japan is, of course, also highly dependent on nuclear power for its energy needs, and the unexpected destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi has received much of the worldwide attention in the wake of the disaster.

The New York Times has created a series of interactive maps that include the radiation effects but also remind readers of many other important dimensions of this tragedy. In addition to radiation levels, the maps show where buildings have been destroyed and lives lost, and that the spatial distribution of casualties differs from that of property damage. Another map includes links to selected photographs of the disasters and recovery. Finally, the map of seismic activity (screenshot above) shows the great number of worrisome aftershocks and illustrates the logarithmic nature of the Richter Scale.

Most of the island of Honshu is is in a climatic zone roughly comparable to that of the mid-Atlantic of the United States. This means that people displaced from their homes face early-spring weather conditions that are cold and uncomfortable, even if not life-threatening. See the Sendai forecast for an idea of current conditions, particularly at night.

(See my earlier post on Japan's Global Links for more thoughts on the geographic implications of the March 11 disaster.)

Roosevelt's Tree Army

In my introductory course on environmental geography, I use a text co-authored by my grad-school mentor. One of my favorite parts of Exploitation, Conservation, Preservation is an early chapter that describes pivotal changes in how the United States has related to the environment. Under the heading "Conservation for Economic Recovery," the text describes how the Great Depression created an opening for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to expand federal involvement in the protection of natural resources.

The history web site Mass Moments commemorates FDR's efforts on this date, the anniversary of the first deployment of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) men in Massachusetts. (They were all men, and despite some rhetorical commitments to the contrary, they were mostly white.) The first group arrived at Fort Devins on this date in 1933. The April 13 article describes the political and economic context of the deployment, along with a lot of operational details I had not known. The scope of FDR's "stimulus package" continues to stand out for both its economic and ecologic effects.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Update on Coffee Figures

Last week I posted 2006 coffee-production figures from FAO, indicating that they were the most recent available. In one sense, this is still correct, since FAO counts production worldwide. A slightly different -- and more recent -- dataset is available from the International Coffee Organization (ICO), which is limited to exporting, member countries. I list the top 20 producers for 2010, according to that list. Browse the entire list for some interesting comparisons over the past five years (some of the ICO statistics are published in units of 1,000 bags, each bag weighing 132 pounds.)

Total production by country in metric tons.
Côte d'Ivoire  
Costa Rica
El Salvador
Papua New Guinea

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Coffee Ranking

Here, for the convenience of anybody curious, is the most comprehensive and most recent list I could find of coffee production, ranked by country. These are 2006 figures from the FAO Statistical Yearbook; figures are in metric tons With 74 countries listed, it includes some very small producers that do not normally show up. I found it as part of my encyclopedia project. I do not want anybody to say we missed a spot!

 Brazil   2,573,368 
 Viet Nam   853,500 
 Colombia   696,000 
 Indonesia   652,668 
 Mexico   310,000 
 India   274,000 
 Peru   258,314 
 Ethiopia   241,482 
 Guatemala   216,600 
 Honduras   192,000 
 Côte d'Ivoire   166,200 
 Uganda   133,310 
 Costa Rica   127,000 
 Philippines   104,093 
 El Salvador   78,482 
 Venezuela   74,332 
 Madagascar   61,635 
 Nicaragua   55,280 
 Kenya   48,300 
 Papua New Guinea   46,900 
 Thailand   46,873 
 Cameroon   45,000 
 Dominican Republic   44,000 
 Malaysia   40,000 
 Tanzania, United Republic of   34,300 
 Congo, Democratic Republic of the   31,960 
 Ecuador   31,461 
 Burundi   31,000 
 Bolivia   27,488 
 Lao People's Democratic Republic   27,000 
 China   23,000 
 Haiti   21,120 
 Rwanda   21,000 
 Sierra Leone   18,000 
 Yemen   17,292 
 Guinea   16,500 
 Timor-Leste   14,000 
 Cuba   13,500 
 Panama   13,500 
 Togo   10,100 
 Sri Lanka   6,460 
 Nigeria   5,340 
 Equatorial Guinea   4,500 
 Zimbabwe   4,500 
 Zambia   3,900 
 United States of America   3,311 
 Myanmar   3,300 
 Liberia   3,200 
 Paraguay   3,040 
 Jamaica   2,700 
 Central African Republic   2,580 
 Congo, Republic of   2,000 
 Angola   1,900 
 Ghana   1,500 
 Malawi   1,500 
 Mozambique   600 
 Dominica   380 
 Trinidad and Tobago   350 
 Cambodia   310 
 Nepal   300 
 Belize   250 
 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines   175 
 Guyana   150 
 Gabon   120 
 Comoros   100 
 Benin   60 
 New Caledonia   25 
 Sao Tome and Principe   20 
 Tonga   18 
 French Polynesia   16 
 Fiji   15 
 Vanuatu   15 
 Suriname   4