Thursday, May 31, 2012

Belated Girth Day

I began this post on Earth Day, when Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro published this very clever bit of culture jamming, but got distracted by other events. I was reminded to wrap this up when I came across another of Piraro's masterpiece's, which I include at the end.
It is appropriate that the weight of the world is borne by a pink Cadillac. It represents the glories of independent roaming, and for this reason is the only song on which I sing lead with my band. But it is also emblematic of the suburban sprawl that is both cause and consequence of drive-up windows.
McDonald's is a product of the automobile, and the reverse is also true. No matter what is in the stuff that passes for food, the convenience and consistency of McDonald's have helped to make it ubiquitous. As people increasingly live in their cars, "restaurants" emerge whose primary virtue is in-and-out access. In fact, a successful chain in the West goes by that name! As our commercial and residential landscapes spread out to make room for cars, cars became essential to navigating them, and McDonald's succeeded by being on the way to just about everywhere!
Piraro's use of a quasi-Spanish name for McDeath brought to mind the fact that I have seen a McDonald's in Managua, Nicaragua that appears from the outside just like any suburban McDonald's in the United States, complete with drive-through window and playground. From Trip Advisor I learned that McDonald's has five outlets in the city, and people actually review them. A friend in Managua (wonders of the Internet) pointed me pointed me to the work of scholar Dennis Rodgers. He includes the history of these franchises in his article An Illness Called Managua. As he explains, they have been both literally and figuratively associated with the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary outlook of the city. They are a visible sign of the extent to which global capital -- with the help of the U.S. government -- has hollowed out the most important gains of Nicaraguan economic democracy.
The image that brought me back to the subject of McDonald's is once again from Bizarro, in this case from a couple of summers ago. The healthier pigeon suggests that a more varied source of nourishment would be better for his friend, in a clear reference to Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. I saw this shortly after listening to an interesting comparison between feeding the mind and feeding the body, courtesy of my favorite librarian (information specialist) and fellow foodie. This led me to affix the rather snarky caption found below.
Your Brain on Limbaugh

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How We Ride

I knew that David Byrne was an avid cyclist and blogger, in addition to being the founder of the Talking Heads and in many ways the founder of world music as a commercially viable enterprise in the United States. I knew that he and I share a love for Brazilian music and I had thought that we both lived in Landsdowne, Maryland, though in different decades. According to Wikipedia, that shared hometown was actually Arbutus -- separated by 15 years or so, which is one reason we never met. From that same font of truths I also learned that he and I are both Scottish (more on my Scottishness coming to this blog on Friday, June 1), though I missed meeting him there by about ten generations.

Our paths did eventually cross at the Wang Theater one Halloween night almost four years ago, though his memory of me is probably not as vivid as my memory of him and his exceptional musical companions.

He even makes bike racks!
Today I learned from fellow geographer extraordinaire Jeff Anzevino -- himself a renaissance person who helped to create the bike-able Walkway over the Hudson -- that Byrne is really in many ways a geographer. In a New York Times op-ed piece last week, Byrne extolls a new bicycle sharing program in The City: This is How We Ride, he writes. He goes on to explain -- both in his article and in the accompanying video -- the environmental, social, artistic, and even mental-health benefits of widespread biking. He provides a quick survey of the many approaches cities around the world have promoted bicycling -- celebrating some accomplishments in the United States, but making it clear that we are far from the most developed country in the world in this arena.

His cogent geographic thinking is along two lines. First, he understands the importance of cartography -- especially modern, digitally-enabled cartography -- in supporting bike-sharing. Second, he deftly explains the feedback loops that allow a small bit of traffic replacement to become a substantial, even dominant contribution to traffic replacement. Enough bike lanes and bike parking, and we can eliminate space dedicated to automobiles.

His article is very timely for my campus at Bridgewater State University, where collaborative research centered in our Movement Arts, Health Promotion, and Leisure Studies program is leading to a very serious expansion of bicycling. At the same time, our Department of Geography has brought back a dedicated course in cartography, with campus mapping as the first major project, and is as I write in the process of acquiring cutting-edge tools for distributing maps online.

Incidentally, when I downloaded a copy of the aforementioned video -- which really is quite worth watching -- I noticed something I see as ironic, given Byrne's message about bicycling in order to become deeply connected to one's surroundings. The RealPlayer download screen actually encourages deeply distracted automobile driving! See the bottom line of the screen below:

Monday, May 28, 2012

Capital Crimes

Latin America is not a country, of course, and as a region not everyone even agrees on which countries it comprises. So technically, Latin America has no capital. Nonetheless, I often tell my students -- often perplexing them unless they have been there -- Latin America does have a capital in some sense, and that capital is the Miami International Airport.

MIA is, of course, on the Dolphin Expressway, just next to the city of Miami, which is also not technically the capital of anything, but seems to exist in a perpetual state of pure imagination. I have long been intrigued by the city, which I knew only from the airport for many years before I ever go to visit in person -- on my way to and from the Amazon. Most of what I think I know comes from friends who have lived there or from the writings of Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen, the latter being one my favorite literary guilty pleasure. It is no accident that Barry's writings often include the phrase "I am not making this up" and that Hiaasen claims that every time he writes something truly unbelievable for one of his romping mystery novels, he sees something more outrageous in the newspaper the next day.

It is amusing that a widely-published photo of author Tom Wolfe features not only his trademark white suit, but also a distracted look, digging in his pockets for something, and a presumably unrelated man text-walking. It does also feature the palm trees and colonnade architecture I associate with much of Latin America.
All of this was brought to mind by a recent article about Tom Wolfe in the Daily Mail (UK). The author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and other satirical tales is releasing Back to Blood in October. The book promises to explore class, race, corruption, and sex -- as is Wolfe's wont -- in a city that seems to be a perfect crucible. I look forward to the book, though I must admit I have only known Wolfe's existing work through film adaptations. I especially look forward to the documentary that is also described in the article. Blood Lines is being produced by Oscar Corral, who has served as Wolfe's guide and interpreter in the Magic City. It will be a deep look not only at the city itself but at the way a great writer does his research. The book and movie combination seems to be the perfect treat for a Miami-phile who will be on  sabbatical when both are released.

As I was mulling the Wolfe story and anticipating a rush of Miami indulgence as our New England autumn begins, I found the following story on AP. The dateline is truly superfluous:

Cop shoots, kills naked attacker
MIAMI (AP, May 27) – Miami police and witnesses say that an officer on Saturday fatally shot a naked man who was chewing on the face of another man on a downtown causeway off-ramp. 
The Miami Herald reports that gunshots were heard about 2 p.m. on the MacArthur Causeway off-ramp, which is near the newspaper’s offices. Witnesses said a woman saw two men fighting and flagged down a police officer, who came upon a naked man mauling the other man. The newspaper quoted witnesses as saying that the officer ordered the naked man to back away, and when he ignored the demand, the officer shot him. Witnesses said that the naked man continued his attack after being shot once, and the officer then shot him several more times.
I am reminded of Hiaasen's anecdote about a passenger being shot at MIA while in a plane, by an assassin on the ground. Fiction writers do not risk this kind of incredibility, and stories do not unfold in quite this way elsewhere.

UPDATE: The "Miami Zombie" -- as he is now known -- has been identified as Rudy Eugene, a name Hiaasen would have been proud to use in his novels, though I don't think even he could have conceived of the line "all that remained was his goatee," which appears in the Miami Herald iupdate. I decided not to click through to the photos and the inevitable "viral" video.

Incidentally, my curriculum vitae lists Miami University as the source of my master's degree, but I can assure you that the school in Ohio is older than the city in Florida and has very little in common with the city at the edge of the edge of the United States.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Learning Priorities

Reading Simon Winchester's The Map that Changed the World (about which I'll be writing more when I've finished) this afternoon, I noticed an interesting passage about higher education in the England in the late eighteenth century. The book's hero is William Smith, a man of modest means who managed essentially to found the modern discipline of geology.

At the time Smith was born in 1769, it was often considered inappropriate for working-class people to pursue higher  education. Winchester cites this passage from an issue of The Grub-Street Journal at that time:
Nineteen in twenty of the species were designed by nature for trade and manufacture. To take them off to read books is the way to do them harm, to make them not wiser or better, but impertinent, troublesome, and factious.
Winchester goes on to explain that this "kind of thinking was rabidly to become outmoded during the eyars when Smith was growing up." (p. 23) The story of Smith's own success validates Winchester's claim, but even two centuries later, it is not entirely the case.

It may be common to think that working- and middle-class people are capable of higher education, but support for making it a reality has rapidly waned in recent decades. A generation of political leaders who benefited from the assumption that higher education is a public good -- so that most of them went to universities that were heavily subsidized -- have now pulled up the proverbial ladder, leaving a generation to shift for themselves.

Students protesting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
describe the problem.
Pundits and politicians -- such as President Obama -- who have belatedly taken notice are placing the blame on higher education itself, rather than on the ecosystem in which public universities historically thrived. A case in point is the Boston Globe, whose May 20 editorial on the subject I have copied in its entirety below, because it is very difficult to find online. My own reply -- which was submitted but not yet published -- is copied below that.

Boston Globe editorial May 20, 2012
To help students choose wisely, colleges need standard price tag

HOW MUCH does college cost? To the surprise of many students and their families, that question is often hard to answer precisely. Information in college brochures and admissions letters comes swaddled in fine print and euphemisms, and it takes a crystal ball to translate student loan terms into the per-month payment graduates will eventually face.

As policymakers confront the rising cost of college, though, ensuring that students and families have clear and accurate information on costs ought to be an obvious first step. Right now, there is no standard way colleges report their price tags, something that would make comparison shopping easier. And virtually no colleges provide admitted students with an estimate of their future loan payments — a number many will ruefully know by heart as graduates.

The result is that there is far more disclosure for a $500 credit card statement than there is for a $200,000 college education. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has created a useful cost comparision tool on its website, but that’s not a substitute for thorough disclosure by colleges in advance.

The bureau has published a sample form that could serve as a template for a standard disclosure. President Obama also called for a “college scorecard” in his State of the Union address.

But it shouldn’t need to come to that. Higher education institutions can take the lead in creating a form that discloses how much students can actually expect to pay, and how much their monthly loan payments will total after they graduate. Since colleges already collect significant financial data from families, they ought to be able to provide customized information relatively easily. Some projections would necessarily be estimates — some students may take more than four years to graduate, for instance — but as long as colleges make projections based on the same criteria, the data still would allow for meaningful comparisons.

Armed with such information, students won’t necessarily choose the cheaper option. But for families that do want to consider the costs, comparisons ought to be less bewildering than they are now. And if having to publish their actual prices in black and white puts pressure on colleges to bring down tuition, so much the better.

LETTER in Response by James Hayes-Bohanan

Regarding your recent editorial about clarity in higher-education billing (To help students choose wisely, colleges need standard price tag, May 20), the suggestion itself is a good one, but the critique does not go far enough.

In Massachusetts public institutions, for example, most of the confusion arises from the way state funds are allocated. Public colleges and universities are not allowed to set tuition rates that reflect the true cost of instruction, because tuition levels are dictated centrally. This provides a fig leaf of price control, leaving the institutions to take responsibility for passing the real costs of education along to students.

A decade ago, Massachusetts trailed almost every other state in its support for public higher education. Since then, while demand for the excellent education provided by its 26 public colleges and universities has increased, that support has actually been reduced. The resulting financial burden on each student has nearly doubled at some schools, and nearly tripled at others.

Your editorial ends with a suggestion that clarity in billing would put pressure on colleges and universities to limit what they charge students. The clarity would be a welcome reform of course, but most institutions already feel that pressure intensely. In the case of public colleges and universities – in Massachusetts and nationally – true reform would bring back the social contract in which the public supports higher education in proportion to its value. Currently, too much of the cost is borne directly by students – a burden far greater than those borne by our current political leaders when they were young adults.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Coffee Ports of Indonesia

Herewith, a preview of the Indonesia entry in my long-awaited book, The Geography of Coffee and Tea:

Indonesia is a country of many geographic superlatives. It has more islands than any other country --  something around 18,000 though nobody knows the exact number -- and more than 6,000 of these are inhabited. It has the fourth-largest human population, and since 88 percent of its people practice Islam and this is not the case among the other very large countries, it has the largest Muslim population, though it has a secular government.

Indonesia is also among the world's largest coffee producers, ranked number four behind Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia in most recent years. Because coffee is grown on so many different islands, it is exported through nine major ports, whereas most producing countries export from just one or two. Java and Sumatra are among the largest producers and among the largest islands in the world (Indonesia has four of the top fifteen), and so each has multiple ports.

I made a simple game for those who wish to join me in learning where these ports are. Notice that the islands of Papua, Flores, Bali, and Borneo -- all of which grow coffee -- have no formal ports. Coffee from these islands must be taken to a port by boat! (If you do not know where those islands are, give the Indonesia islands and seas puzzle a try; I take no credit for that one.)

Play on PurposeGames

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Education Crime Scene

$77,920,000 (2007)
$452,480,000 (2011)

Each month most readers of Harper's turn first to its trademark Harper's Index on page 11 -- a full page of numbers that tell interesting, sometimes disturbing, stories. The most frightening numbers in the June 2012 issue are these, describing an alarming increase in venture capital speculation in education start-ups.

My friend Vernon often quotes Balzak's observation -- from 19th-century France -- that "behind every great fortune is a great crime." (Note: Honoré de Balzac was born on this date in 1799; he was a writer and a coffee fiend of unusual ferocity.) Contemporary sociologist James Petras elaborates, explaining how the growing class of billionaires (fewer than a thousand people with more wealth than three billion of their planet-mates) have manipulated the powers of the state to their own benefit. In a separate article, he explains how the ruling classes often use anti-state language to facilitate their personal use of the state. The adulation of the private sector is shameless, growing even as obvious counter examples mount, such as the examples set this week by Curt Schilling and Jamie Dimon.

Just as Eisenhower warned of the Military Industrial Complex -- which has allowed for billions of dollars of "bombs not bread" spending -- so we now see an emergence of an even more insidious Educational Industrial Complex. Using Orwellian terms like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top," investors in charter schools and high-stakes testing regimes are quickly moving to bypass educators and to separate taxpayers, students, and teachers from their money.

Even as early ideological supporters such as Diane Ravitch are admitting the flaws in mislabeled "reforms," politicians across the narrow political spectrum are embracing privatization and testing regimes that pretend to hold teachers accountable, while offering no accountability for the reforms themselves. Meanwhile, inside education, an ever-increasing amount of space, time, and decision-making power is given over to private companies and wealthy individuals.

In Massachusetts -- which is dominated by Democrats but not liberals -- higher education has been savaged over the past decade. A state that already lagged behind most of the rest has continued to cut operational funding. (I might sound ungrateful, since I work in a building undergoing a $100,000,000 renovation, but already we are seeing the limitations that tight funding has placed on the actual educational components of that project.)

Some relevant numbers from closer to home were compiled by Dr. Ira Rubenzahl, President of Springfield Technical Community College. On his blog celebrating public higher education, he reports the following trends over the past decade:

State Appropriations for community colleges and state universities - DOWN 11%
Student Charges at State Universities UP 168%
Student Charges at Community Colleges UP 86%
Numbers of graduates at State Universities UP 12%
Number of graduates at Community Colleges UP 21%

Shifting the burden from the current budget to future debtors and from the general public to the current student body is both counter to conservative, pay-as-you-go rhetoric and oblivious of the value of higher education to the entire society. Those who are in school are doing both themselves and their entire communities a service. They should pay a reasonable share of the cost -- as most of who went to college up through the 1980s did -- but they should not be shackled by onerous debt because governors and legislators refuse to recognize the value what they do.

The burden falls particularly heavily on those who wish to pursue careers in K-12 education. Even though administrative and consultative employment is flourishing, the ranks of actual teachers are shrinking while the obstacles grow. And in Massachusetts, future teachers must pay a minimum of $750 to a private testing company for poorly designed trivia tests (a.k.a. MTEL) before they can even enter some education programs.

Today's rant is not just about whining and hand-wringing though. Students, educators, and even some administrators are becoming organized in PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts. Advocacy work in this area is difficult, since student leaders inevitably gradate and many faculty members in Massachusetts are simply worn out by decades of lost battles and empty promises. But in recent years PHENOM has grown in numbers, energy, and sophistication, so it is a group that has the best chance of rewarding effort with some results.

The phenomenal students of PHENOM at
the State House.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Government Small Enough to Fit in their Pockets

If you see these anti-government crusaders coming, hold on to your wallets!
This one is almost too easy. Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, rather than just being grateful that he could make millions of dollars playing a game he enjoyed, has spent much of his retirement railing against government and blaming the poor for the problems of the middle class.

It was unseemly, then, that he took his video-game company out of Massachusetts (so long, loyal fans!) in pursuit of publicly-financed incentives from Rhode Island. Rich guys do this sort of thing all the time, so the backlash did not fully ensue until recent days, when he defaulted on a $1.1 million payment toward on the $75 million loan he had been given with very generous terms. For the moment, he has managed to patch together payment of his own, but the future is bleak for the taxpayers who fronted the money, those who lost their jobs in Massachusetts, and those who never did get the promised jobs in Rhode Island.

Anti-government Schilling has now put Rhode Island taxpayers on the hook for his poor business decisions, and he is now diverting the attention of Governor Lincoln Chafee, who opposed this deal in the first place.

The timing of this fiasco coincides with several other items in the news. This week Mitt Romney's surrogates are complaining about the Obama campaign's scrutiny of his business practices, even though his business experience has always been the only thing he cites as a qualification for office. It also comes at a time that Red Sox fans are finally realizing that they have been paying too much for tickets, implying that even some of Schilling's private sector "earnings" were a bit inflated.

The greatest coincidence, however, is Schilling's failure and the loss of $2,000,000,000 by JP Morgan, whose CEO Jamie Dimon has gladly received government bailout money (to the tune of $25,000,000,000) while railing against government regulation. As is so often the case, Boston Globe writer Brian McGrory makes the connections between these stories crystal clear in his column Curt Schilling a hypocrite about smaller government.

By the way, I cannot take credit for this article's title, which former Globe sports writer Charlie Pierce uttered on today's installment of the WBUR program Only a Game.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dose of Distraction

I have developed a terrible driving habit in recent years. When I notice another driver failing to blend with traffic, I look over to see whether they are chatting on the phone or texting. That is to say, I allow myself to be distracted by their distracted driving. More than half the time, if someone is drifting in the lane or driving 10 mph below the speed limit, it is because their brain is elsewhere.

Massachusetts typically ranked 49th in driving ability before we were able to bring our social networks and the entire Internet into the driver's seat. It is amazing that we could have such terrible driving without digital assistance.

As the cartoonist Wiley so beautifully illustrates in yesterday's comic, the desire to be distracted now extends to walking. This year my university campus has had some very complicated driving and walking patterns because of construction, but a high percentage of both walkers and drivers continued to move through the parking lots using only a minimal percentage of their brain cells.

And that is just the problem -- most of the time, walking and driving do not require much of our brains, which crave activity. So we seek to fill the void with other kinds of engagement. This is why cars have radios, for example. The difficulty is that every once in a while, a driving or walking situation requires much MORE thinking, perhaps instantaneously. A ball rolls out into traffic, the car in front of us suddenly swerves, or a cliff opens up in our path.

If we are listening to a radio when this sudden shift in attention is needed, it is not a problem: our brain simply shifts attention to where it is needed for a second or a minute and then shifts back to the radio. I often have the experience, for example, of missing a key point in a radio broadcast because it comes just as my attention is needed elsewhere. The danger of social-media distractions is that politeness makes it more difficult to surrender that attention, and so we are more likely to keep our focus on the conversation when it is needed in the car or on the path.

The same applies in classes and business meetings, of course. The reason students -- or employees -- text when they should be listening is that sometimes the conversation in the classroom or meeting room only requires a few brain cells. If the professor or a coworker is saying something that we already know -- or that we think we already know -- we tend to reach for something else to do with our spare brain cells. If that something is a doodle pad or even a small puzzle, we can easily snap back to attention when called upon. But if in the palm of our hands we hold a connection to most of our friends and the contents of countless libraries, it is easy for our minds to be transported far from the space our bodies occupy. When called upon in such circumstances, we have no answers; our minds were elsewhere.

For these reasons, if our brain might be needed, the only safe dose for social media is no dose at all.

Most people who watch the video above are likely to focus on the dramatic conclusion. I always look for the moment -- a few seconds before that -- when the instructor clearly loses his train of thought. Just as texting distracts other drivers who wonder why someone would type and drive at the same time, even the most subtle texting in class or a meeting will distract the speaker eventually. Some speakers soldier on, just as they might pretend to ignore a mosquito, but no speaker is unaware of the texting that goes on around them. For this reason, texting (even in one's crotch, seemingly out of sight) undermines the work of educators and other public speakers.

Beyond Lagniappe
We've recently been watching -- and re-watching -- a lot of Hitchcock, who had the luxury of predeceasing all of this foolishness. Still, his persona weighs in on the issue by way of this spoof:

Here is the real horror story: the students to whom I showed this did not understand it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Colombia and Coffee Costs

In the process of researching trends in coffee production, I found a valuable report from the USDA entitled, simply, Coffee: World Markets and Trade. The 22-page report from the Foreign Agricultural Service was published in December 2011 and provides the most recent comprehensive portrait of world coffee production, consumption, and trade. It is easy to discern patterns at the national level and to examine trends on an annual basis at the global level. For countries that produce both Arabica and Robusta (such as Indonesia and Brazil, the relative importance of each can be seen.

Of greatest interest to consumers might be what the report reveals about the causes of current price increases. The graph of Colombian production above is at the very beginning of the report. The graphic above, by the way, is something Edward Tufte would appreciate. It presents the problem quite elegantly, but does require careful attention. It does not have trend lines. Rather, it compares the annual fluctuations from early in the decade to more recent patterns. That is, the solid green curve is used as the control or baseline, against which the average of the three most recent crop years is compared. The red dot is a single data point reported just prior to the publication of the report, and it suggests that this year's crop is starting at an even lower point than recent trends.

As the third-largest producer, the impact of Colombia's declining production are much greater than might be expected. The report cites heavy rains, coffee rust, and the coffee cherry borer as causes of the decline. Other experts cite Colombia as an example of the effects of climate change on coffee production, (see New York Times on heat damage to Colombian coffee). This suggests that the recent changes might represent a "new normal" for Colombia and might portend similar changes throughout the world's coffeelands. An additional problem is that coffee crops are sometimes collateral damage in programs to eradicate coca, since the spraying of a single-year crop of coca can damage nearby coffee on a permanent basis. Former coca farmers in Cauca are reversing that trend by moving deliberately from coca to coffee, but this is not yet common practice.

Production in Brazil and Vietnam are remaining relatively constant and any increase in Indonesia is going simply to meet its domestic demand. This combination of factors leads FAS to conclude that the current crop year will end with about 24 million bags on hand. That is a lot of coffee, but it would be the lowest level of ending stocks in several years, so expect to pay more. Farmers lucky enough to have direct connections to the market may be paid a bit more per bag  as well, but most of the gains will go to traders, middlemen, and retailers.

Note that all figures in the report are in thousands of 60-kg (132-pound) bags, such as the one my good friend Don Alfredo Rayo was carrying when we saw him at Sol Cafe in January 2007. Throughout most of the world, coffee workers routinely carry bags of this size, often stacking them in warehouses without any mechanical equipment.
Don Alfredo Rayo of La Corona, Matagalpa
Learn more on the Matagalpa Study Tour pages

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vexillological Subtlety

Three flags from three nations offer a challenge to those who are trying to master vexillology. While doing research on the coffees of Indonesia, I found a simple explanation of its flag in the CIA Factbook: "two equal horizontal bands of red (top) and white; the colors derive from the banner of the Majapahit Empire of the 13th-15th centuries; red symbolizes courage, white represents purity."

Indonesia flag from Maps of World
The article refers to two additional countries that share a similar design. The flag of the Principality of Monaco is described as: "two equal horizontal bands of red (top) and white; the colors are those of the ruling House of Grimaldi and have been in use since 1339, making the flag one of the world's oldest national banners."
Monaco flag from Maps of World
These two images, at the scale and from the same web site, can only be distinguished by the hue of red being used, though the Monaco flag is supposed to be shorter than that of Indonesia, according to the CIA.

The flag of Poland is easy to confuse with the other two, unless it is mounted properly. The CIA describes it as "two equal horizontal bands of white (top) and red; colors derive from the Polish emblem - a white eagle on a red field," without elaborating on the emblem to which reference is made.

Poland flag from Maps of World

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Line of Fire

One of the most important things we like to show our EarthView students is the Pacific Ring of Fire. From inside our giant globe, they can see this enormous zone of tectonic activity as never before. Volcanoes and earthquakes surround the Pacific Ocean as all of the major kinds of tectonic boundaries create the majority of these landforms and events in the world.

Convergent boundaries are responsible for many of the world's volcanoes,
 including all of those found in  Nicaragua.
When I travel with students to Nicaragua, we spend time with visiting just a few of the active and inactive volcanoes that constitute the Ring of Fire. Because of its location along the convergent boundary between the Cocos Plate (a small portion of the Pacific Ocean) and the Caribbean Plate (which includes both the Caribbean Sea and most of the Central American isthmus), Nicaragua's volcanoes form a tidy line parallel to the southwest coast. When climbing Cerro Negro, we can actually see the ocean in the distance in front of us, with much larger volcanoes forming an imposing line to our left and our right, as far as we can see.

Many of the more important volcanoes are described in some detail on the volcanoes page at ViaNica, a site dedicated to the exploration of Nicaragua. I used the ViaNica map (copied above), in fact, as my guide when creating the Nicaragua Volcanoes quiz on PurposeGames. Study the page to learn what makes each of these volcanoes special, and then take the quiz to see if you can remember which volcano is where!
This blogger sand-sledding on the flanks of Cerro Negro,
with the assistance of Freddy, one of the amazing guides
of Matagalpa Tours (I know: Cerro Negro is not in Matagalpa!)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Take Me To Your Leaders

Play World Leaders
Who are these guys? And yes, they are mostly guys, unfortunately. Still, this is a screenshot from an excellent game on one of my new favorite web sites, Purpose Games. One very cool thing about this site is that users can easily create their own interactive games because of the clever use of these blue dots.

Play Coffee Cherry or
Advanced Coffee Cherry
at PurposeGames
I made a game about the parts of the coffee fruit in just a few minutes, and made a more advanced version the next day. The site is full of useful geography quizzes for learners at any level, and interested in learning geography at any scale, from small regions to the entire world.

Among the games I have found most intriguing is the world leaders game, posted by a user named Doffa in 2007, and played more than 11,000 times so far. Some of these leaders have already left office, but it is still worthwhile knowing something about them. For each leader, I have provided a link to a Wikipedia article, something I usually avoid on this blog but a way to avoid making a life's work of this post. It is a reasonable starting point for readers who -- like me -- do not know much about some of these figures. I have used the names as presented in the online puzzle; Wikipedia provides more complete full names for some individuals.

Hugo Chávez  -- Venezuela
Stephen Harper -- Canada
Angela Merkel -- Germany
George W Bush -- United States
Tony Blair -- United Kingdom
Lech Kaczyński -- Poland
Romano Prodi -- Italy 
Pervez Musharraf -- Pakistan
Abdullahbin Abdulaziz -- Saudi Arabia
Thabo Mbeki -- South Africa
ManmohanSingh -- India
Hu Jintao -- China
Néstor Kirchner  -- Argentina
VladimirPutin -- Russia
John Howard -- Australia
Hamid Karzai -- Afghanistan
Jaques Chirac -- France
Shinzō Abe -- Japan
Viktor Yushchenko -- Ukraine
Stephen Harper -- Canada
Ehud Olmert -- Israel
Felipe Calderón -- Mexico

Once you have mastered these leaders, you might want to try a somewhat more ambitious variation from user fabianruiz. Produced in 2009, it is slightly more current than the puzzle shown above and it includes many more female heads of state. A clever innovation is the incorporation of vexillology. The proper response to the name of a country is the photo of its leader; the proper response to the name of a leader is the flag of his or her country. Study the screenshot below and try it at 24 World Leaders. I am looking for a volunteer guest blogger to provide a study sheet for this one.

Play 24 World Leaders

Tea Time for the Coffee Maven

Each year my university looks forward to a two-day conference at which we share what we have been doing in scholarship and teaching. One of my presentations this year was entitled "Tea Time for the Coffee Maven," echoing the title of a 1970 Cat Stevens album. It was only my second public presentation on the geography of tea, and I wanted the title to convey that I am just beginning to learn about the subject.

I was originally planning to give a lecture, but organizers from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Scholarship (CARS) asked me to present my work as a poster, and offered to cover the cost of a tea tasting as part of the conference's closing reception. My poster is available as a PowerPoint file (which includes details of the seven Teavana teas I served), but one slide in particular seems appropriate for this blog. As I thought about the geographies of these two beverages, I realized that I was forming lists of the commonalities and distinctions that might best be described using a Venn diagram. The result, I think, is a reasonable starting point for discussing these two globally important beverages.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Keurig Comparisons

Coffee Bean Direct -- from which I occasionally order coffee for my tasting events -- includes this K-Cup infographic in its pitch for a reusable filter for Keurig machines. This graphic provides details that I did not include in my earlier screed on the topic, entitled Will Convenience Kill Coffee? I especially appreciate the research on waste streams.
I agree that reusable filters remove some of the disadvantages of K-Cups, for the reasons described above. I do not see any remaining advantages of a Keurig, though, and wonder why people are willing to work so hard to salvage this concept. Several other methods are less expensive and more effective while requiring about the same amount of effort. A small French press can make single cups that actually taste good!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Just Some Games

For once, a blog post with minimal commentary. I plan to add these to my GeoGames page some day. Meanwhile, here are some geography-game links for my readers to peruse. Thanks to students in my geography-education class for submitting these as part of their final exams.

I am surprised that I had not heard of the Purpose Games site before, as it has many games, some of which have been played hundreds of thousands of times. It is easy to create new games as well; I created a game about the coffee fruit in just a few minutes.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Home Page Nuggets

My various web pages and blogs began in the mid-1990s with a single web page on the then-new web site of UT-Brownsville. It included some writing advice and a few geography links. Eventually, the site moved to its present hosting at Bridgewater State University and grew to hundreds of pages, and during one reorganization, I decided to put a series of very short articles on the home page, as examples of the variety that can be found in the field of geography. Those half-dozen examples eventually inspired me to create this blog, which now has several hundred examples of geographic thinking -- use the search box at the top of this page to see if your favorite topic has been mentioned.

From time to time, though, I want to point to one of those original items on the home page, so today I created "hot spot" links to these items on that home page.

Rain Forest Geography
Earth at Night
John Snow -- Geography of Public Health
Hurricane Katrina
Sprawl Redux -- The Playground Problem
Geography of Coffee
Geography for Global Education
Geography is What Geographers Do

Happy browsing!