Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Under the Skywalk

Late-afternoon sun illuminates the supports for the old railroad bridge that has been transformed
into the Walkway Over the Hudson.
Last Thursday was a perfect day to enjoy exploring sites both new and familiar -- a wonderful afternoon and evening spent about halfway between our home and a very important errand in Toronto.

The first part of the journey was zooming along the familiar Massachusetts Turnpike (the driveway of my summer, as it turns out), exiting a bit earlier than usual to take I-84 into western Connecticut. Because I'm writing this, it is apparent that we survived passage through Hartford. In my experience, Hartford is a scary pocket of daredevil driving in Connecticut, which has by far the best driving conditions in southern New England. (This is like having the best swimming conditions in Hell, but I digress from my digression.)

As part of our Bridgewaters Project (the lifelong pursuit of places sharing the name of our adopted hometown), we wandered off of I-84, through horse country and into the bucolic (though recently somewhat sordid) village of Bridgewater, Connecticut (population: 1,824).

After a wonderfully surprising coffee-shop visit along Route 9, we came to the real highlight of our evening -- a visit with our friend Jeff Anzevino, a friend from our undergraduate days as geography students at UMBC. The Hudson River has captivated Jeff, who works as a planner for Scenic Hudson by day, sleeps in a cozy home high above the river by night, and takes masterful photos of its tugboats in between. Jeff lives about halfway between our home and the homes of our extended families, allowing us sporadic visits through which he has passed along his passion for this river.

On this particular visit, we trawled from bank to bank with Jeff and a fellow river booster, enjoying the fish, the trains, and the unique human and physical geography of the river and shoreline in the vicinity of Highland and Poughkeepsie. The most remarkable part of that view is the Walkway Over the Hudson, the result of  successful collaboration among countless visionaries in the region, Jeff not least among them. The abandoned railroad bridge whose pier is shown above now supports one of the world's highest and longest pedestrian bridges, a walkway that allows pedestrians to enjoy a view from the sky above a remarkable river. Moreover, the bridge greatly increases the ability of people to commute by bicycle, so that many people can now get across the river, onto a train, and into New York City or Albany without ever getting in an automobile. (Read more about the importance of this in my How We Ride post.)

The bridge is visible in the background of this somewhat hazy photograph, along with a vessel that is itself another important facet of the river's story. Jeff's avocation as a musician connects him to a much more famous champion of this river: Pete Seeger, whose ship the Clearwater has long served -- quite literally -- as a vessel for environmental education in the Hudson. The converted coal ship was being tended at the of of a sailing day when we found it berthed in Poughkeepsie.

I am thankful also to my friend Hilary -- another geographer -- for pointing that proposed hydrofracking -- in the pursuit of supposedly "clean" natural gas -- is a threat to the Hudson River. The Marcellus Shale where fracking is proposed lies mainly outside of the Hudson River Valley. Pete Seeger and the Clearwater have been among those resisting the project. Formal regulatory comments from Scenic Hudson detail some of the specific threats, while Sean Lennon (yes, that Sean Lennon explains the threat to Pennsylvania and New York landscapes, and water supplies in those regions and New York City itself). Nearly 10,000 people have joined Hilary in the No Fracking Way group on Facebook, which continues to work to protect water and land from what would be the equivalent of a slow, massive spill underground.

A few years back -- before I had seen much of it up close -- I enjoyed the stories of the Hudson that begin William Least Heat-Moon's Riverhorse: A Voyage Across America. In some ways, it is like a riparian version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Read more about the Hudson in my Tappan Zee birthday post.

That errand, by the way? We were picking up our daughter, who had been on a service trip to China with Me to We, a Canadian youth organization.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cups and Summits

SPOILER ALERT. This is an article about two terrific films, each of which connects coffee to political economy. My best advice is to watch them (you will not regret it) and then perhaps read what I have to say. That said, in the comments below, I will refrain from giving away the details of the fictional work.
The films discussed are The Girl in the Café (HBO feature film, 2005) and  Black Gold (documentary, 2006). Viewers of both films should watch (and carefully listen) through the end of the closing credits.

For some reason, I learned about the 2005 film The Girl in the Café only recently, during one of my frequent searches for films related to coffee and anything related to coffee shops or to the romantic side of coffee. Kelly Macdonald (Gina -- a young woman, not a girl) and Bill Nighy (Lawrence) bring all this and more to a film that works on many levels, so I am glad finally to have found it.

The first level is a nerd-meets-nerd romantic comedy, heavier on the romance than the comedy, the romance unfolding at an excruciating pace. From a chance meeting in a crowded London café, the May-December couple tip-toed around their mutual attraction until our DVD timer read 54 minutes before the first kiss. By then I was yelling at the screen like that old man next door in It's A Wonderful Life.

As the pair moves toward resolution of the film's romantic tension, a deeper tension emerged, along with the film's real purpose. Lawrence is a British finance official who is part of his country's negotiating team at the 2008 G8 meeting. For the purpose of the film, the meeting was chaired by the United Kingdom but held in Reykjavik. The 2008 meeting was actually held in Scotland, but it was indeed chaired by the UK.

The G8 meetings are gatherings of the heads of state and finance ministers from eight large countries (known as large "economies" for the purposes of those who view the world primarily in economic terms). Since 1975 (when they began as a G6 meeting), these meetings have been a place where a small roomful of heads of state make commitments on finance and trade policy that have profound implications for all the people on the planet. For the past decade or so, the summits have made rhetorical commitments to improvements in the lives of poor people -- promising to reduce the number of childhood deaths related to malnutrition, for example. They are part of a similar cycle of summits in which economic power tends to be consolidated while democratic power becomes increasingly peripheral.

In the film, this is signaled as the couple's romantic getaway passes transitions from the awkward moment with coworkers at the airport to the gradual realization of their arrival in the security bubble. It is at this moment that viewers of another coffee film will begin to notice parallels. As in the 2006 documentary Black Gold, our introduction to the meeting of the most powerful people on the planet is the revelation of the police and military power used to keep ordinary people out of the meeting.

And young Gina's accidental status as an ordinary person inside this extraordinary security bubble becomes the central conflict of the film. As reviewer Alessandra Stanley so aptly describes her role, the young girlfriend is the id of both a member of the negotiating team who usually divides his humanity from his profession and of the screenwriter, who wishes that his film could transform politics in the way that the character he created does within the film.

Clearly, it has not happened yet. And the 2008 presidential election has not changed the behavior of the United States in such settings. In both The Girl and Black Gold, negotiators give lip service to humanitarian goals, while arrogantly insisting that the free-market absolutism will have better results than actual changes improvements in aid, debt, and trade for impoverished countries.

I conclude this post with an example that arrived in this week's mail. Among the varied excerpts in the September issue of Harper's magazine is a piece described as Editing and entitled Brazil Nots. It shows the changes that President Obama's representatives at the June 2012 Rio+20 conference requested to a summit declaration entitled "The Future We Want." Some of the changes are more subtle than others, but all reveal a stronger commitment to ideological purity than to tangible results for the world's poor. (Bold words are additions; strikethroughs are deletions. I have put the entire excerpt in italics)

Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. In this regard we are committed to free humanity from extreme poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.

We recognize that promoting universal access to social services can make an important contribution to consolidating and achieving development gains.

We strongly encourage initiatives at all levels aimed at providing enhancing social protection for all people.

We appeal to invite all States, relevant international organizations, the private sector, and all major groups to enhance their efforts to achieve sustainable changes in consumption and production patterns while creating new economic opportunities and decent work, and securing good enhancing living standards and protection of vulnerable groups.

We reaffirm the urgent need to deepen the reform of the global financial system and architecture based on the principles of equity, sovereign equality, independence, common interest, cooperation and solidarity among all States.

We urge developed countries to undertake significant changes in the lifestyles of their people to move towards a more sustainable future for all.

Each of these paragraphs is from a different part of a 53-page document. A quick perusal of the final draft document suggests that the Obama Administration got some but not all of the changes is requested. Having seen both Black Gold and The Girl in the Café, I can easily envision the negotiators justifying each of these changes, and I would love to see Gina take these characters down!

Ravitch Recants

During the 1990s, Diane Ravitch was a national leader in the charge to "reform" schools through greater emphasis on testing and by fostering competition among schools via free-market schemes known as school choice. To her credit, she has recanted this two-pronged approach. Hear what she has to say about the effect of these "reforms" on education and educators.

For the past four years, I have been part of a team that has taken Project EarthView to schools, mainly at the middle-school level. We have taken close to 40,000 students -- in small groups -- into our giant, inflatable globe (see videos and the rest of our blog). Students are fascinated, impressed, and engaged in learning when they encounter this unusual learning environment.

But in schools that are in the throes of anguish over standardized testing, we are literally not able to get in the door with this kind of innovative learning. Fear surrounding false, high-stakes metrics of student achievement put such schools on virtual lock-down, with every minute of the day committed to a fruitless pursuit of test scores.

In such an environment, some wonder why many kids turn to disruptive or destructive behaviors. Frankly, I marvel at how many young people do not act out. My own town (and an adjacent town) have literally bulldozed skate parks in an effort to herd kids into more regimented recreation, even in their non-school hours, while systematically removing many forms of self-expression and exploration from the school day. Our local superintendent even considered eliminating social studies altogether, since it was not covered on standardized tests.

I hope that Diane Ravitch is heard, and that the pendulum will swing back from a movement that has been as bipartisan as it has been misguided and destructive.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Espresso Giant

Those who have seen the morning comics page will not be surprised to see that I was delighted with Adam @ Home today. It is the third stop on my morning routine: coffee, kenken, Adam. It is not always about coffee, nor is it always about middle-aged romance, but today it is about both. As such, I have given it a permanent home on my Coffee & Tea Romance page (in the "libido and potions" section), along with an excerpt from the new 50 Shames of Earl Grey (in the "frothy fiction" section).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Coffee for Chemists

By a cosmic coffee coincidence, Javatrekker and aspiring comic Dean Cycon released this video just as I was preparing to address the annual meeting of the New England Association of Chemistry Teachers, which was hosted by our BSU chemists last week. I had not worked with this group before, but rightly surmised that this would be a good way to open my presentation. I post it here for the benefit of those NEACT participants who might wish to share it, along some of the other resources I presented that evening.

(Prior to the talk on coffee, I mentioned two other resources that might be of interest to anybody involved in education in New England, especially southern New England. These are the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History, which can put together an educational program on any subject and our own EarthView outreach program.)

As Dean points out in the video itself, of course, the pesticides associated with "conventional coffee" are in reality no laughing matter. Many chemicals we have banned in the United States are routinely used on the coffee -- and other products we import from around the world. In real life, Dean sets an extraordinary example, and I was able to offer the teachers a choice of his No CO2 and Decaf Chiapas coffees. Each of these single-origin selections gave us a chance to discuss some environmental chemistry, related to carbon offsets and caffeine removal, respectively. The byproduct of decaf coffee, by the way, is now marketed as "green coffee extract" by Starbucks -- coffee without the coffee flavor. Gadzooks.

Never mind the debates about whether traces of these nasties make their way into our cups: there is no denying that the barrage of chemicals sprayed on the coffee, sugar, flowers, oranges, and countless other tropical crops have profound effects on the ecosystems and communities from which we extract these bounties. As much fun as I have with coffee as a beverage and teaching tool, I remember that life-and-death questions really do surround its production.

Because the theme of this year's NEACT meeting was green chemistry, I put together an eclectic talk entitled "Greening Coffee: From Red to Green to Brown." That is, I provided a sampling of environmental choices at various stages of coffee production, from the growth of the plant (red berries) through the in-country processing (green coffee) to its roasting and brewing (brown beans or beverage).

This required a very brief overview of the roughly 50 steps from field to cup, which I summarized with the names that are typically used to describe coffee in Nicaragua. On the tree, the fruit is a cherry. Once picked, it is a grape. When peeled, the slimy seed is honey. When dried, it is parchment. When green, it is gold (because it can earn money). When roasted, it is a bean. When brewed, it is coffee.

I also mentioned the parts of the cherry that are separated at various stages, and an online quiz that I created for those who wish to learn these parts. A more advanced quiz teaches the geography of processing -- the locations in which each part of the coffee is typically removed through processing.

I discussed the geographic parameters that determine where coffee can be effectively grown, and I mentioned Coffee & Conservation, a marvelous resource on the relationship between coffee ecology and the habitat of migratory birds. Then, as an antidote to Dean's Mad Scientist, I shared the best example I know of coffee being produced in harmony with its surrounding ecology -- the biodynamic production of my friend Byron, the Poet of Coffee.This video also provides a nice transition from the coffee grower to the importer and roaster, who also have the opportunity to make important decisions about the environmental impacts of the coffee.

An interesting development at the roasting stage is the growing interest in solar roasting, a growing field in which Solar Roast Coffee of Colorado seems to be a leader. As roasting coffee on our campus continues to be an elusive goal, we might actually have an opportunity to do some relevant roof-top research.

I talked about brewing not in terms of environmental impact so much as flavor impact. Flavor is important, however, as brewing coffee properly honors the work of those who have put tremendous care into producing it. Moreover, the more consumers learn to appreciate good coffee, the more likely are farmers to be fairly compensated for their work and talent. Rather than discuss my approach to brewing in detail, I mentioned one brewing method that is favored by industry experts and was invented by a chemist in Springfield, Massachuetts: the Chemex coffeemaker.

And even though most of the audience members were (I presume) going to be spending the night away from their romantic partners, I ended the presentation with Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of the sultry song Black Coffee and reference to the work of Lavazza and others on a different kind of coffee chemistry that is explored in some depth on my (PG-13) Coffee & Tea Romance page.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Vizualization Tools

Many thanks to my friend Gerard -- a librarian and a geographer -- for the article 9 Data Visualization Tools for Librarians and Educators (never mind that librarians are educators). Appearing on the blog of the Online Education Database (OEDb), this recent article is a gateway to nine web sites that provide a number of easy ways to create online visual representations of data. Speed and ease are two common threads, along with great variety and reasonably strong design qualities.

The word cloud above is an example of both speed and ease -- the result of lazily accepting the defaults on a tool called Tagxedo and applying it to this very blog. The result prioritizes some words that recur frequently but are not related to content -- such as my own name and the menu choices that appear on every post (blog, facebook, comments). Just as I wrote this paragraph, I tried the software again, with the intention of seeing whether I could suppress some of the common words. I did not find a way to do that, but the random variation within the algorithm did reduce some of them, generating this more pleasing cloud:
Both clouds do help the reader to learn -- at a glance -- something about this blog.

The "9 Tools" article is not just about word clouds, though. It points to nine different sites, including some tat allow users to create maps, so it will keep me busy for some while.

For expert guidance on envisioning information, I refer readers to Edward Tufte, who has written several beautiful books on the subject. For beginners, I recommend his essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,  available for $7 postpaid. Nobody should teach without having read this essay!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Immigrants Should Learn the Language

This a complaint I often hear from xenophobes who make a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions about those who have migrated to the United States. Just a week ago -- as we were getting ready to send our daughter to China -- I heard a father whining to his daughter in the waiting room of our physician's office. 

"We're in America, right? Just checking, because this is the only magazine in here in English." Setting a fine example for his daughter, he complained that the issue of Time he picked up was the only thing he could read on that particular table. He did not check the magazine rack, nor did he notice that all of the other magazines were the exact same issue of a new, Spanish-language publication, which had clearly been dumped in the office as a way to get quick attention. And of course he did not see the problem in terms of his own limitations, as in "I wish I had studied more languages."

"We're not in Spain," said he. "Or Mexico," she added. As our daughter approaches fluency in four languages, this young lady is learning to avoid knowing more than one.

I was reminded of this scene when I found the map below among the files in my "to-be-blogged" folder. It is essentially a 1491 linguistic map of North America. Some of these language groups persist at some level, but most of the linguistic diversity of the continent has been lost in the "long night of these 500 years," as Manu Chao has called the colonial and post-colonial period.

Lost details of the credit for this map -- feel free to inform me!
Even thinking about the post-conquest period, the English-only crowd suffers from some problematic misconceptions. In South Texas I once heard a winter visitor from Nebraska complain that "these people move here without bothering to learn the language." Aside from the basic rudeness of the "these people" nomenclature, the comment ignored the fact that Texas was Spanish-speaking for the majority of the past 500 years, and that she and I were more recent migrants than many of "these people."

She also repeated a common error, which is that whenever people are speaking a language other than English, it is because they cannot speak English, or because they are somehow conspiring against any English speakers in the room. Sadly, many of my fellow citizens just have too little experience in multilingual environments to understand how rarely either of these conditions holds true.

When my own ancestors arrived on these shores -- in 1609 Virginia and 1620 Plymouth -- they did not learn Algonquin languages, preferring to bring English with them. By the time the first Bohanan landed in Boston in 1734, he presumably had to adjust from Gaelic to English, but he had surely picked up some of that already from his shipmates/captors.

While working on this post, I also had the pleasure of watching a movie that is already one of my favorites -- The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. Among the many other virtues of these witty Kiwi entertainers is their embrace of the Maori language in their performances.

I close this post with a map that is a bit better known among geographers. It depicts political boundaries in continental Africa (prior to the formation of South Sudan) and the languages and language groups of the continent prior to European invasions. Since many boundaries were set by people who had not even visited the places they were ruling, cultural geography was rarely reflected in the lines that were drawn. I cannot help but notice that the dividing line for the current division in Mali is corresponds precisely with linguistic boundaries.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gearing Up Geography

Naturalist John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

His lesson is being learned in my own region, where headlines every day clamor for aerial spraying of mosquitoes to combat Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) -- until today, when the headline in the local paper complains that we have too many bats, in part because mosquitoes (their main diet) have been killed off ... not enough mosquitoes!

Dr. Michael Miller's graphic illustrates a similar concept in an entirely different context. Writing about innovation in the funding of health care, he uses this illustration to describe the interlocking "gears" of the environment in which such innovations would be introduced. A strictly mechanical interpretation suggests paralysis, but an ecological interpretation might suggest that movement is possible, though consequences could be difficult to predict.

As much as I like this graphic in general, I am even more pleased that Dr. Miller recognizes a "gear" that is too often forgotten: geography. Medical geography -- whether it relates to service provision, health status, or disease transmission -- recognizes the importance of place in the subjects it studies.

Whether recognized or not, geography is a "gear" in almost every facet of life.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

What I Do On Fridays

For the past four years, I have worked with students and colleagues on a wonderful project known as Project EarthView. With the support of my university president and many other members of our administration, we have taken a 20-foot, inflatable globe to schools, civic clubs, churches, and conference centers.

We have set up the portable classroom and brought literally tens of thousands of people inside this model of the physical earth -- all in small groups. Most participants have been middle-school students, but people of all ages and abilities have enjoyed EarthView visits.

Because it is difficult to describe what this experience is like for those who have not seen it but are thinking about hosting us, I am very pleased to be able to share two short videos that give viewers a hint of what to expect from this marvelous and unusual learning tool.

Each video was prepared by a middle-school geography teacher, one in cooperation with fellow teachers, and the other with a former student. Have a look at the EarthView Preview Videos post on our EarthView blog. While you are there, feel free to browse the blog for stories about our work with middle school students and for concise geography lessons intended for middle schoolers but useful to all.

Hot or Not?

During the first eight years of this century, the president and vice president of the United States were oil tycoons, so their denial of climate science was not surprising. Those who were paying attention became increasingly convinced of the role of fossil fuels in changing the climate, but paying attention was somehow optional.

In this election year, however, ignoring the evidence requires extraordinary will. Unfortunately, these three men share a great capacity to ignore a climate story that is no longer about the future, but about the very immediate present. Rhetorical differences may distinguish President Obama from Governor Romney somewhat, but neither of them is any more likely than Chinese Premier Jiabao to act on what most people in the United States can see so clearly.

It is dry. Most of the United States -- and especially many parts that are normally dry -- are experiencing drier than normal conditions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, some of the driest regions are experiencing the greatest deficits. The region overlying the Ogallala Aquifer has been drawing down surpluses that accumulated more than a hundred centuries ago, and its dependency on water from the last Ice Age continues to deepen.

Fires are raging. Forest fires have increased in recent decades in large part because of the unintended consequences of suppressing fires throughout most of the twentieth century. Fire response was so successful that a matrix of forest with uniformly heavy fuel loads emerged throughout most of North America, with serious and sometimes catastrophic results. That's right: Smokey the Bear has made forest fires much worse!

This is an example of an environmental problem whose effects are compounded by climate change. Whatever the causes of greater fire prevalence, the consequences are even more severe than they otherwise might be. As reported on the Mongabay blog, cartographer John Nelson has mapped all major fires since 2001, and has shown an increase in intensity, with 2011 the most severe year of the decade, and 2012 poised to match or exceed it.

Records are shattering. With 118 years of record, it is possible to compare a given month to the same month in previous years, and to do so at the station, city, state, or national level. Temperatures were near the median of all July figures in several western states, and significantly above normal in a few more. But in most states, this was a top-ten or even top-five July, and a record-breaker for the contiguous 48 as a whole. See July 2012 on NOAA's State of the Climate page for more details.

This can be explained in only one of two ways. It could be that the 118-year period of record reflects randomly varying conditions. If so, a record month or unusually hot or cold month would occur at some frequency, a frequency that could be calculated in much the same way that the odds of finding a seven-foot-tall 10th grader could be calculated.

The second explanation is that the temperature records not only vary randomly, but also exhibit some kind of long-term trend. Some continue to argue that there is no way to know which explanation is correct. I am not a gambler, but I would love to play a little poker with someone who sees things this way!

This is a trend. As Bill McKibben details in his Rolling Stone article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math, we are already seeing changes -- in terms of sea ice and ocean acidity, for example -- that exceed "future" predictions of the effects of climate change.

Carbon circulates through many kinds of storage in Earth's systems, from the atmosphere to organisms to limestone to coal and oil. Our industrial age has been fueled by the removal and release of millions of years worth of fossilized carbon over just a couple hundred years. Since carbon comprises a very small percentage of the atmosphere -- 0.028 percent prior to Victorian times -- it should not have surprised us that dumping every drop we could find into the atmosphere should have increased that concentration by nearly half (so far).

As a result, McKibben argues, we are on the brink of an entirely new geologic period - the Anthropocene -- a perilous time of our own making. And as Dr. Mary Robinson has told us, those who have benefited the most from the orgy of petroleum-fueled excess are geographically and socio-economically quite distant from those who will bear the brunt of the resultant suffering.

It appears that heads of state will not admit the answer to the "Hot or Not?" question any time soon. Carlos and company, however, do provide the answer at the opening of "Smooth."

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Tea Line

'round hee-ah, we draw ow-ar own lines!

This line, uttered with vigor and prejudice but a dollop good humor, is a lasting memory of a brief encounter with a vestigial Southern relative ... vestigial in the sense that he had held on to his resentment of Reconstruction about a century longer than he ought to have.

The conversation went something like this, as I stopped by his home a couple of years before his passing, and a couple of decades after our most recent prior encounter:

Uncle: James, why did you go and marry a Yankee girl?
Pam -- speaking for herself: I'm not a Yankee; I'm from Maryland. That's south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Uncle: (see above)

It is remarkable how often this brief conversation creeps back into conversations about boundaries of all kinds -- literal and figurative, racial and otherwise.

I was reminded of it yet again, as I was doing research on the geography of tea for my forthcoming book on the subject. It was then that I noticed an article about sweet tea on the Strange Maps blog, referring in turn to a geographic experiment on the Eight Over Five site. A rather simple methodology involving the availability of sweetened tea at McDonald's franchises in my home state of Virginia reveals a surprising consistent dividing line.

And were my uncle alive, he would be vindicated to some degree: both Pam and I grew up in Yankee territory, as defined by the tea.