Thursday, May 30, 2013

Beyond Eyerolls

Thanks to the listeners of NPR's Code Switch for sharing the fascinating questions they have been asked about race, some of which the program has posted in this slide show.

My initial reading of these questions confirmed my impression that a lot racism remains in U.S. society (and perhaps all societies). I think that is still true, but the comments various readers have posted after the original article suggests another, more constructive reading.

Many comments point out that the questions sometimes reflect curiosity as much as ignorance. So rather than an eye-roll or a face-palm, these readers suggest considering the possibility that these are awkward -- in most cases very awkward -- attempts at dialog. And that at least is a good thing.

I think this is similar to something I have posted with regard to the opportunity that is sometimes provided by music. A stupid question may be just the tip of a iceberg, the underwater portion of which might be real dialog.

June 3 update: A new article has me rethinking this charitable interpretation a little -- or least suggesting that ignorance is not always a good excuse. Writing for the San Francisco online magazine The Bold Italic, Chin Lu explains Why Yellow Fever is Different Than "Having A Type,"  providing some insight into the intertwining of racism and attraction.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Mind the Gap


View Larger Map

X marks the spot of the most recent of several critical junctures to make news recently. The light-colored span is an overpass carrying Highway M over the intersection of two railroad lines. The span collapsed early Saturday morning, when one freight train struck another as it passed under the highway in southwestern Missouri. If one zooms out the map just a bit, it is apparent that this stretch of Highway M was recently rerouted, so that two at-grade crossings were replaced by a single overpass, facilitating the connection between nearby Scott City and Chaffee.

Google Maps has not yet updated the highway map to indicate the missing bridge, because the scale of this disaster, though locally quite important, is not disruptive on a regional or national scale. Just a few days earlier, a bridge collapse in Washington State received much more attention -- and will continue to do so -- because of the greater vulnerability of the entire transportation network to bridges on major interstates. I wrote about that bridge on our Project EarthView blog, as part of a more general discussion of Movement as a major theme in geography. The collapse of the Mt. Vernon, Washington bridge creates a critical gap that Google Maps has already indicated. Oversized trucks (such as the one that triggered the collapse of the vulnerable bridge) would now need to go through Montana to find the nearest Interstate bridge!

Map from Now I Know, which uses the
same clever title as I have.
I was pondering this as I heard the story this morning of the Darien Gap -- a missing piece of the Pan-American Highway that had escaped my notice. I had been told by a provost once that she had once traversed the entire Pan-American Highway; I should ask her what she did about southeastern Panama.

I have traversed just a few sections of it -- notably the Las Tunas region in Nicaragua, where the coffee crisis of 1999 came to a head.

I always envisioned it as a continuous road along the West Coast, a notion disputed by the this map of official and unofficial routes.

Sources agree, however, that the bit between Panama and Colombia (which were once a single country, until Teddy Roosevelt helped to divide them in return for access to the canal zone) is too complicated to traverse with a permanent road, and to risky for most people to attempt by other means.

I learned about the gap from Steve Curwood's recent interview with Jennie Erin Smith, who has also written about her adventures in the Darien Gap for The New Yorker. From the interview, I learned a bit more about the US-led effort to create the highway and the various reasons it has never been completed in this one stretch of high biodiversity.

The well-named blog Dark Roasted Blend described the gap in a wonderful photo essay entitled The Most Dangerous (Absence of a) Road.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Meadow Lane is Memory Lane

I am too young -- believe it or not -- to have watched Peyton Place as a TV series, and have never seen the original film nor read the book. Yet I cannot think of Meadow Lane Apartments in Arbutus, Maryland without that title coming to mind.

Lovely trees now fill a courtyard that was rather bleak in our day.
This was the site of my last bachelor pad and first marital domicile. It was also the largest of several inexpensive apartment complexes within a reasonable walk or short bus ride of our university. More than three hundred units housed an eclectic mix of working-class families, recent immigrants, and students in relatively decent conditions. (Among the recent immigrants were many from India; when Hare Krishnas came to our door, it was to ask if we could point them in the direction of any new Indian families.)

Among the scores of student residents were many who were "playing house" for the first time, and the drama of break-ups, make-ups, love triangles, trysts, and other sexual intrigue was often palpable. Hence the association with the place of soap opera legend.

I moved into Meadow Lane on a dark and stormy night, very shortly after a schizophrenic escapee from a nearby mental institution broke into a house I was sharing with three other students a few miles to the south. That story -- and the brief horror film we shot there -- are tales for another day. I moved into Meadow Lane with the housemate who had actually introduced me to that escaped patient (as I said, that's another tale), and shared it with two other students before the Love of My Life joined me there during our second romance.

Fast forwarding over a quarter century -- which was recently recounted in the New York Times -- we have been looking through old photographs to show our teen-aged daughter. Pam found a sales brochure that she must have been given the first time she moved into Meadow Lane, which was before our time. The brochure is shown here because of what it conveys about a sense of place.


The brochure puts me in mind of Cities on Stone, in which John Reps compares the lithographs used to attract settlers to new towns in the American West to the realities of those towns. They were not dramatically untrue, but they tended to emphasize order and safety to a degree not quite warranted.

The outer cover features a map, and conveniently advises readers how to find Alan Drive -- which is contained entirely within the complex -- from Wilkens Avenue, which is more widely known. The photograph does not try to exaggerate the level of luxury. The map serves not only to locate the facility, though: it also reinforces its convenience and its association with the county (safe) rather than the city (not safe). A nearby church is prominently depicted, though is far less important than such other features as the university.


Just as the map as the only reference I have ever seen to a "Baltimore County Beltway," the interior of the brochure includes many symbols of "county living," most of which one would normally not associate with any particular kind of neighborhood, such as the presence of a refrigerator. (The now-famous photograph in the aforementioned NYT article, incidentally, was taken in the very center of the city!)

Whether county or city, the apartments were quite decent, and the floor plan convenient. An arch in the center (between the living room and the two bedrooms) was actually a bit charming, and something we always hoped to find in subsequent lodgings.



The actual location of Meadow Lane is the entire loop of Alan Drive and the first block of Hooper Avenue, as shown below. It is convenient to UMBC, otherwise known as UCLA -- University of Catonsville, Left of Arbutus. The site of the proposal mentioned in the NYT article is clearly visible -- Poplar Avenue, at the south side of campus.


View Larger Map

Those who are still reading are perhaps doing so simply to find out what "L.S. #1" means. Some have already guessed -- it's the Love Shack. Love Shack Number One, that is. We are now on L.S. #7, which is quite a different, well, Place.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

It Is Not Just WalMart

More than a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh were murdered by their employers last month in a building collapse that finally allowed some people to understand what had long been obvious to anybody willing to pay attention: The race to the bottom in prices has real costs in human lives.

Years ago, of course, the labor movement in the United States was catalyzed by similar crimes, notably the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Activism led to improvements, but it also eventually fed the movement of work to places that were more "business friendly."

It has been relatively easy to hide the consequences of off-shoring from customers who are pleased by low prices and whose attention is diverted by modern-day "Bread and Circus" distractions and do not know much geography. One advantage of social networking, though, is that truly poignant stories become so widely known that they cannot be ignored. Initially some large companies expressed relief that their products were not on the assembly line when the deaths occurred. This did not suffice, of course, as ALL who produce in Bangladesh are in a sense accessories to this crime.

For this reason, most large importers of clothing from Bangladesh have agreed to an agreement that would enforce some level of building-safety requirement. They are not committing to treating workers well -- only to ensuring that they do not die at work in large groups. It is not surprising that the one company most responsible for the fixation on low price at any cost has eschewed this agreement.

WalMart -- which was on Radio Boston yesterday extolling its treatment of retail workers -- has announced that it will do its own inspections, and has warned consumers that they will bear the cost of any needed improvements.


By promising to pass along the costs of safety improvements to consumers, WalMart is -- in its own perverse way -- admitting something that neither they nor bargain-hunting customers have wanted to admit. If something seems cheaper than it could possibly be, it is coming at a huge cost for someone else.


We can blame WalMart -- and I do -- but people too often see themselves as consumers rather than humans or citizens. And as consumers, too many focus on price only, rather than costs. For this WalMart is just the most egregious example of terrible values that have become all too widespread.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Teaching What Teachers Make

Like the great rapper Kid Frost, Taylor Mali is a high school teacher whose poetry eventually led him out of the classroom. In Mali's case, though, his post-teaching career is itself a celebration of the great work of fellow teachers. (Nothing against Frost, of course, whose poetry focused on diffusing gang violence among his students and their peers.)

Mali's launch into popular culture was the result of an insult -- a very common one endured by teachers -- that hit him the wrong way but at just the right time. A lawyer (not one of the good ones) sneered that teachers are those who cannot do anything, and therefore do not make anything. Unable to rest after failing to deliver a snappy retort, Mali answered the question, "What do you make?" with biting wit. His slam delivery of the poem is invigorating; but he himself recommends the version below, delivered by fellow teachers.



Soon after learning about his poetry, I found his book What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. I had a class of future teachers together the day after I bought the book, and was not able to play a video for them (we were on a boat with limited WiFi). So one of these students read the poem to the others, to great effect. I highly recommend that teachers and future teachers read this poem aloud to each other, and I will be making this book a regular part of my pedagogy class.

The small, inspiring volume is both back story and elaboration of the poem itself. One of the many themes he expands upon in the book is the idea that for some people -- such as the lawyer who started all of this -- the fact that teachers are underpaid itself is a reason to dismiss them. And once they are willing to work for less -- because of their passion -- paying them even less is justified. I would not say that this attitude is rampant among highly-paid administrators and trustees in education, but I did once have a provost explain my salary (about 1/4 of her own) in exactly these terms. In times of fiscal austerity, the class divide between professors and administrators can become a real problem if the administrators are not attuned to it --  not only in terms of justice, but in terms of the effectiveness of an institution.

Poet Mali makes clear in his "I'll Fight You for the Library" that he understands as well as I do that the higher ranks of educational hierarchies include some who do not necessarily value teaching. The Peter Principle ensures that some administrators are educators who were "promoted" out of jobs at which they excelled and into jobs for which they had no aptitude, while others ended up in charge of schools by some career accident. His retelling of a true story that involved one of his mentors features one of each kind -- an administrator who remains an educator and understands the purposes of a library, and one who clearly does not.

EarthView at Stoughton
The misnamed "accountability" movement has only served to increase the divide between teaching and administration, perversely punishing the former while rewarding the latter. I have the privilege of bring an educational outreach program to schools on a weekly basis -- a program with a large "wow" factor. I mean that literally -- students of all ages sometimes yell "Wow!" when they see the giant globe we bring to their schools. With increasing frequency, our program is canceled in favor of standardized tests, and with increased rarity do we see school administrators. We have been on the cover of more newspapers -- local and regional -- than I would ever have thought possible, yet MOST school principals cannot find the time to witness even 20 minutes of remarkable student engagement.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Panama Canal and Public Health: A Geography Tale

In my 2011 posts The Ship That Changed the World and Biggest Ships Ever, I described some of the important implications of containerization for economic geography and global trade. Whenever I see containers -- which is often -- I am nostalgic for my undergraduate transportation professor, who always said the word conTAINerization with inimitable enthusiasm.

I must admit that I was actually giddy earlier this year, when a working-harbor tour took us within a beam's breadth of the containership Valletta in Boston. Even though I knew its Maltese registry signifies an effort to skirt taxes and safety regulations, I could not help being in awe of the scale of this endeavor, as we watched entire truckloads of cargo (mostly underpriced textiles) being offloaded every other minute.


As a Latin Americanist, I am particularly interested in the ways that container technology continues to intersect with questions of economic development and national sovereignty in Panama. It was not until this morning, reading a Washington Post article about asthma in areas surround the seaport of Newark, New Jersey, that I thought about the implications of Panama's expansion for environmental geography, environmental justice, and human health.

Geography is all about connections!

Grim Milestone

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring compound in the earth's troposphere. The quantity present has fluctuated over long stretches of what is called geologic time, but more recently has experienced significant changes over human timescales.

The concentration in the atmosphere changes by several parts per million in a predictable way each year, as seasonal changes in the photosynthesis experienced in mid-latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres store and release carbon in the short term. Read more about the Keeling curve on my climate page.

On May 9 of this year -- our wedding anniversary -- the gas reached the historic milestone of 400 parts per million (0.04 percent). The word "historic" is important, in the sense that this is a level not reached in human history, though it was exceeded in pre-history. It will probably dip below 400 in coming months, but all indications is that it will continue to ratchet much higher until priorities change.

Visit the 400 page at 350.org for more information about the implications of this milestone, and follow Climate Justice to learn about the generational and geographic inequity of the problems run-away carbon loading is causing.
Colorado River Delta -- National Geographic
Climate change is not only cause -- nor perhaps in some cases even the main cause -- of the increasingly common failure of some rivers to meet the sea. But as National Geographic explains in its dry rivers photo essay, flood and drought contribute to the increasingly common and increasingly serious problem. Where rising seas meet retreating fresh water, the intrusion of salt into both surface water and ground water is an additional concern.