Friday, February 22, 2013

Privates Exposed

The Colbert Report Feb 21, 2013

The GEO Group naming of a public-university stadium is a true story that exceeds the kinkiest fantasies of Grover Norquist's twin fetishes of low taxes and privatization.

A public university is underfunded, so it turns to a private company for funds. It allows it to put the private company's name on a public building in return for providing funds that should have come from tax revenues in the first place. And where does the private company get all this money? From tax revenues that now add a layer of private profit to the public expenditure that would normally go to fund prisons directly.

The myth of privatization is that it creates efficiencies. The opposite is true, of course, since both services and profits must be funded, with money once used only for the services. In this case, so much profit was taken that it flowed into an increasingly common form of corruption -- the private naming of public properties.

I am usually pleased to see references to geography,
but in this case it is creepy.

July 23, 2015: The GEO group is in the news again. Alexandra Starr reports on Morning Edition that GEO Group is the largest employer of undocumented workers in the United States. It pays them to operate the prisons in which they are held, maximizing the profits it makes from their detention..

Monday, February 18, 2013

Google In Google Out

GIGO is a term that goes back to the earliest lessons of life with computers: Garbage In, Garbage Out. It is a warning not to trust computers too much, and it is as true now as it was when Hal nearly did in the crew of the S.S. Discovery.

I am a big fan and avid user of Google Maps, but when I look at places I know, I sometimes find either a lack of detail or outright errors. In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, for instance, many of the places I visit each January are nearly impossible to find, so that I am working with a student -- and a GPS unit -- to map our most recent journey.

And as I wrote in September, a routing error puts the town of San Ignacio, Belize (where I will be teaching a course on chocolate in June 2013) many hours farther from neighboring towns (and potential tourists) than it really is. The problem seems to relate to a bridge that was washed out on the main highway but subsequently repaired. The map (as shown above in a screen capture just taken) continues to include an unneeded diversion, but it an improvement from the time of my original report.
Click to expand
I was reminded of this while preparing for a possible return to Cape Verde next year. During my 2006 study tour, I had visited only two islands, and plan to visit more on my second study tour. Looking at the northern islands, I was confused, because sites I planned to visit seemed to be on an island that was not in our preliminary plans. I worked for about a half hour in this confused state before consulting another map. Of course two of the three islands shown above do not have the same name! The middle of these three islands is actually São Vicente, and does not share its name with Santa Luzia.

View Larger Map

I have advised Google of this error, but I am not optimistic of a rapid response. When the problem is resolved, the dynamic map above will show three islands with three names. Meanwhile, the NationMaster map is far more reliable than Google, when it comes to planning a tour of Cape Verde. The islands in question are in the northwest corner of this map.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Vertical Katrina

Thanks to my favorite librarian for sharing the Occupy Sandy video, which comes from Bill Moyers (whom I recently described as one of my favorite Baptists) by way of Upworthy contributor Carolyn Silveira. This rich video documents the community-based responses of Occupy participants to the ongoing calamity of Super Storm Sandy. This video is eight minutes well spent, as it is full of lessons about environmental geography and the political ecology of disaster.

Occupy Sandy from on Vimeo.

The first geographic lesson occurs early in the segment, when a group of Occupy Wall Street participants use geographic skills to decide where to focus their efforts to help people who might still be suffering the affects of Sandy after the initial recovery period had ended. Since the question of where to reach out was a geographic question, they used a geographic strategy to answer it. Overlaying a map of storm surges with a map of relative wealth, they chose Coney Island as a place where high water and low income meet.

This methodology led them to a surprise -- beyond the carnival rides and boardwalk, Coney Island is home to many high-rise apartment complex in which thousands of people experiencing poverty live in great numbers. And since these neighborhoods had been low on the priority list for governments and utilities, the discomfort and suffering were as severe as the resources were limited. In fact, one of the volunteers declared the disaster to be a "vertical Katrina" and a reminder that the lessons of that travesty have not yet really been learned.

The volunteers exhibit all that has been most positive about the Occupy movement. Among these is a recognition that economic privilege or lack thereof is fleeting, and is contingent on circumstances beyond the control of individuals. Still, privilege does insulate some of us against hardship more than others, and those with privilege -- even modest privilege -- should share those benefits. The horizontal nature of the the movement is also exemplified by this effort, as is the ability to match rhetoric and ideology with tangible action for the good of an entire community. One of the political ecology observations in the video is that the Coney Island neighborhood in which it takes place is a food desert, where the "free market" does not provide the range of foods to which more affluent communities in the United States are now accustomed.

Epilogue: This video was made when people were still wearing sweaters and light jackets. When winter storms began to strike the region in subsequent months, some homes were still without power. It goes without saying that these were not the homes of the wealthy or even the middle class.

Further epilogue: I saw this video as news included not only the recovery of my own neighborhood from a winter storm that left us without power for almost four days (some shorter, some longer), and as the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph ended its ordeal at sea with 4,200 people with limited power. Both of these events have many middle-class people -- myself included -- thinking carefully about both our vulnerabilities and the resilience that is afforded by financial resources and social connections that are not be available to all.

Some have critical of the Triumph passengers for complaining and the media for covering their plight. (And some of them -- such as Ben Vogelzang -- actually did not complain.) I would not go that far, as I do think that so many people on a disabled ship is a genuine humanitarian concern, even if the people involved are relatively wealthy and the discomforts are short-lived. It was a worthwhile reminder, however, that not all such crises come to a happy conclusion, as this one eventually did.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fluvial Geography of Whiskey

In the second hour (wisely chosen) of today's program, Tom Ashbrook and his guests explored the many tributaries that comprise the great river of whiskey so celebrated by Professor Willie Nelson. Although the word "history" was used several times during the discussion, this was a great example of the importance of geography behind history of all kinds.

Michael Veach, Joy Richard, and a slew of interesting callers discuss the revival of interest in fine whiskeys as well as the geographic differences in such things as the use of barrels. Trade along a literal river -- the Mississippi -- helps to explain the distinctive use of charred barrels in Kentucky. Some mention was made, of course, of Scotch, the history and geography of which I discussed in some detail on this blog last year.

I highly recommend the On Point discussion in its entirety, as well as the many interesting comments posted by users. Among them is a hint that my ambitions of distilling my own whiskey (or whisky) might be harder to attain than I had imagined.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nicaragua Memories 2013

I have not blogged much in the past few weeks, as I was quite busy during my seventh Geography of Coffee study tour in Nicaragua, and have been very busy with a new semester since then. My photographs from the trip are on Flickr, and I expect to be able to share more from my students soon.

Learn about GPS

Meanwhile, a student has posted the first of several video montages I expect to see from this group of very engaged students. This is really a mood piece of a memorable journey.

Nick was also carrying a GPS unit throughout the tour, partly to do some benchmark research on climate change at various farms and also to help document the journey.

He has started to put the data together in a very artful way, focused on the first half of our travels, in and around Matagalpa. Enjoy.