Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tale of Two Slopes


This handful of letters ruled my life during my last year of graduate school. I used them in thousands of calculations as I tried to understand what was causing high rates of reservoir sedimentation in recreational lakes north of Cincinnati.

As soil nerds will recall, the USLE is a model for estimating soil erosion from slopes. Specifically, it estimates sheet and rill erosion, a combination of what is removed by water flowing in thin layers over a surface and water concentrating into small channels, known as rills.

An explanation of the formula is at the end of this post, along with the answer to sedimentation question. First, however, I need to describe the two slopes of this tale, both of which I noticed on campuses in the past couple days.

The first is just across the street from my office, where the front of our campus center has recently been renovated (environmental side note -- all renovation work in our campus center takes a long time because it was build in the heyday of asbestos-based construction). The project is laudable for the considerable improvement in ADA accessibility, though this remains limited by an inferior elevator. All new construction on our campus is LEED certified, and though I have not checked I assume that major renovations are as well. If it is, the project reveals a couple of limitations of the certification, and certainly reveals how far our campus has to go in sustainability. At least two new televisions were installed in the renovated space, and seem always to be broadcasting to nobody in particular.

And then there is this slope:

It might be legal -- I see things like this all the time -- but it is certainly not appropriate. Exposed soil is subject to removal by falling rain and transportation by flowing water. In regions with sensitive waterways -- and southeastern Massachusetts is certainly such a region -- the protection of soil during and after construction is an easy way to protect water resources. Despite heavy investment in wetlands protection through hundreds of conservation commissions, Massachusetts does not require erosion protection that has become routine in places like Maryland, which values the Beautiful Swimmers of the Chesapeake Bay.

On Friday, I visited another area of new construction -- the Glover School in Marblehead -- and found much more appropriate treatment. Both a geotextile cover and a silt fence are in place.

Admittedly, this slope is steeper and needs more protection, but it is clear that the lesser slope at BSU is losing soil to local streams, and should really be armored in a similar way, even if such a step is not required by law.

Back to the Forumla

As promised, some details on the USLE formula itself:


The Universal Soil-Loss Equation is a statistical model that originally was developed to help farmers make decisions about soil protection. It is based on copious amounts of data correlating soil loss with variations in five factors. Each of the factors is calculated and the results multiplied together to estimate "actual" erosion. This is then compared to the "tolerable" erosion, or the amount that a specific kind of soil can lose without diminishing soil fertility. Thousands of soil types have been identified in the United States alone -- they are known as soil series.

R -- Rainfall intensity is a measure of the erosive work that can be done by falling rain. It is calculated for an area on the basis of the most intense rainfall events of a typical year. A few episodes of intense rainfall can be much more significant than many days of gently falling rain. Climate change may result in increasing R values, resulting in greater soil erosion in some places.

K -- The erodibility constant for each soil series is based on its texture (that is, particle-size distribution) and structure (specific organization of particles). Some soils simply wash away more readily than others.

LS -- The length-slope factor was the most difficult for me to calculate for my thesis, because it reflects the tendency of water to accelerate as it flows downhill. This effect involves both the distance traveled and the angle of the slope, but the relationship between the two is not linear.

C - The crop factor accounts for the shape, size, spacing, and timing of plant structures. Data are extensive on common crops such as wheat and corn, but the protective effect of vegetation can also be estimated for any kind of plant cover, from golf-course grass to oak forests. A common misconception is that roots provide the main protective effects for soil; in reality the ability of leaves to intercept falling rain is much more important. Water dripping or even misting from below a leaf canopy is usually far less erosive than water drops that have reached a given size and velocity as free-falling rain.

P - The practices factor accounts for things that a farmer can do deliberately to slow down erosion, such as plowing parallel to contours, spreading straw on the ground after harvests, or building small berms to interrupt the flow of water. Many of these can be modified for construction contexts.

And back to the reservoirs

In the case of the reservoirs I was studying, it turned out that the watersheds were being managed properly to minimize erosion from the time of reservoir construction through the time of our study, and presumably to this day. Unfortunately, erosion rates were quite high anyway, because of previous generations of destructive agricultural practices. Put simply, pigs had been allowed to overgraze in the upper portions of the watershed, and had caused tremendous erosion in the early 20th century. Much of that soil was stored temporarily in lower portions of the watershed, and good forest management was actually causing it to be released during the period of our study. This was as ironic and unfair as it was inevitable, and we  were able to offer reservoir managers very few ideas for protecting their investments.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crop Cash

"We are faced with two possible futures. One is a diversity of crops, of cultures, and of cuisines that can inhabit ecosystems sustainably and produce healthy food for urban centers. The other is long-distance food from nowhere, monocultural systems that aren't sustainable, and simplified diet, especially for the poor."
This quote from University of Toronto geographer Harriet Friedmann forms pivot point in a remarkable book by Frederick Kaufman. I found Bet the Farm while exploring the literature on models of trade in food with an advanced student of fair trade and other certifications.

Kaufman explores global food markets from the pizza box outward, first detailing the incredible scale and rapid growth of global pizza, particularly the pizza emerging from a small handful of transnational companies. The incredible efficiency of the industry justifies his choice of pizza as the major exemplar of his subtitle: How Food Stopped Being Food -- he uses the word "widget" far more than one would like in a food book!

One of the questions Kaufman explores is whether Friedmann is correct to assert that food choices are necessarily binary. If they are, the university at which I teach captures the dichotomy perfectly. What we teach in the classrooms and tout in our brochures is undermined in the hallways.

The need for a different path may be intellectually compelling, but the logic of simplistic food is difficult to resist in practice. Here a bank of high-fructose snackage sits available 24/7, directly behind a space built for a real-food cafe that was proposed, encouraged, and ultimately rejected. Although many students, faculty, and staff were behind a better path, Pepsi has been ready with cash and for now, that speaks louder.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Crash Landing

I am part of a national, online community that is pushing back against high-stakes testing and the rapid rollout of the Common Core. This morning a member from California shared the story I have copied below.

This is a sign of things to come. Computers crash because of the way Bill Gates approaches software, and he has now bought his way into the school reform movement.

My kindergarteners had their standardized computerized test today. 

There were over 100 questions. Answers were selected by drop and drag with a trackpad, no mouse is available. One class took five hours to finish. Kids crying in 4 of 5 classes. Multiple computer crashes ("okay, you just sit right there while we fix it! Don't talk to anyone!"). Kids sitting for half hour with volume off on headsets but not saying anything. Kids accidentally swapping tangled headsets and not even noticing what they heard had nothing to do with what they saw on the screen. Kids having to solve 8+6 when the answer choices are 0-9 and having to DRAG AND DROP first a 1 then a 4 to form a 14. Some questions where it was only necessary to click an answer but the objects were movable (for no reason). No verbal explanation that you must click the little speaker square to hear the instructions. To go to the next question, one clicks "next" in lower right-hand corner.....which is also where the pop-up menu comes up to take you to other programs or shut down, so about many shut-downs or kids winding up in a completely different program.

If this is not what you want for your kids and grandkids, you'd better start making some noise. Ten years ago we would've thought this would be literally impossible.

The movement demonizes teachers, and conveniently offers this alternative. It is not just about building wealth for Bill Gates (the J.D. Rockefeller of computing has plenty of other ways to extort money), but that is one of its outcomes.

Rocketship charter schools get kids cubicle-ready.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Resisting the Education Oligarchy

NOTE: This is no ordinary blog post. It has two action items, a provocative video, and an uplifting radio piece.

Faced with a national education regime that is increasingly hostile to teachers, students, and learning itself, a growing number of parents are pushing back. Among the recent resisters is Ricardo D. Rosa of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who is opting out of state-mandated testing. His letter to the school committee was published in the Washington Post and reads in part:
Any administrator, school committee member, or school functionary still standing before students, teachers, and families touting the virtues of high-stakes testing should be ashamed. -- Ricardo D. Rosa
He is absolutely right, of course. The "reform" movement is a well-funded, bipartisan movement to centralize public education in the United States to a level that is difficult to believe possible in a democracy.

It sounds shrill to blame "corporate interests," but it is the case that Bill Gates, the Waltons (of WalMart fame), and Pearson Publishing are both paying the piper and calling the tune. Contributing generously to media and elected officials of all political persuasions, they are creating an entirely new educational ecosystem. As I have written previously, those calling for accountability for nickels and dimes are not held accountable for millions nor billions.
Critical thinking is being removed from the airwaves as quickly as it is from the classroom.
A puff piece on the Common Core is but the latest in a growing number of examples of what generous donations can buy. Contrast the "reporting" with the responses from educators to see that NPR's usual rigor seems to have gone missing. (Within hours, comments were curtailed at a few dozen.)

An Accountability Challenge 

Fortunately, Dr. Rosa is not alone. The kind of resistance that he exhibits and challenges others to undertake is growing. On the same day that I learned of his challenge, I saw this cartoon ...
... and I learned that some educators are trying to make this teachers' fantasy a reality. In February, Bret Wooten of Lewisville, Texas began a petition to require the governor of Texas and its legislators and education officials to pass the tests that they require of students, and to publicize their scores. His effort grew slowly within Texas for a few weeks, but in the past couple of days, a growing number of petitioners from other states have signed on. If you are reading this, consider adding your name, as I have done (#116).

In Holyoke, Massachusetts, teacher Augusto Morales has recently spoken out against the humiliation and disruption caused by extreme testing in his school. It is no coincidence that the strongest resistance is emerging in low-income, urban areas. The very students who were the purported beneficiaries of No Child Left Behind are the ones most likely to be left behind by high-stakes testing, nonsensical curricula from Pearson, and inappropriate pedagogy from Bill Gates.

I read similar anguish in reports from teachers throughout the United States, many of whom report absurdly intrusive regimes of testing and test preparation. Even the bodily functions of teachers and students are increasingly likely to be regulated by local officials trying to please distant educational bureaucracies.I admire Mr. Morales for bringing that widely-felt pain directly to the attention of some of those responsible.

Higher Education Connections

I teach at the university level and my own daughter has so far attended private schools (in large part because of what NCLB has done to public schools), so I could easily ignore all of this. But I would do so at great peril. For one thing, those who are orchestrating destructive reforms in K12 are working to dis-empower university faculty through various means -- from the elimination or reduction of tenure to cryptofascist accountability regimes.

Moreover, those of us who enjoy teaching at the university level are now confronted with the first wave of students who have never known anything but NCLB levels of testing, and it shows. Just today I had students -- very bright students -- absolutely panicked about a very modest mid-term I am giving them later this week. They expect detailed reviews not only of the content but also of the exact format of the exam -- and the strongest students are fretting just as much as the weaker ones. Sadly, it is warped visions of "college
readiness" that instills approaches to learning that are not at all collegiate.

Finally, many professors are teaching future educators and some of us provide ongoing professional development to in-service teachers. If we care at all about the effectiveness of the work that our students are going to be doing, we cannot ignore policies that will prohibit many of the best practices we teach. It is for this reason that I am grateful to fellow Massachusetts academics who have prepared a detailed critique of the MCAS/PARCC/Pearson regime, and presenting it to the education policymakers in the state. I am proud to join professor Rosa (like me, he is both a father and a professor) and many others in endorsing that statement.

A Better Way

I need to end this post with something positive, and I am fortunate that my favorite librarian -- with whom I discuss these issues often -- today shared this story of a very different kind of higher education. This is eleven minutes of delightful audio about Quest University in Canada. Just listening to this positive report about education is something every teacher should do as a treat to the self. The report is at once an eloquent description of what has gone wrong in education and a glimpse into what happens when teachers and learners are enabled to flourish.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Project Runway

The following article and map are reposted directly from WNYC, which has analyzed possible landing sites for Malaysian Air Flight 370, which has been missing for a full week. (See my EarthView post about some of the geographic implications.) At this map makes clear, the search area is immense, because the plane had enough fuel to travel for seven hours at high speed, and nobody knows what direction it was heading. The landing sites shown are "possible" only in the physical sense. For any of them to be actual landing sites, the landing of a major aircraft would have to be both unnoticed and unreported, which would be possible in very few political jurisdictions.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Modern Not Advanced

During our EarthView program today, we applied an array of geospatial technologies to find lunch. At the suggestion of one of our hosts, we selected Ward's Berry Farm, where a full-service sandwich stand is part of the farm's strategy for economic diversification. Like many farms that succeed in suburbia, the management has embraced internet and social media strategies to cultivate relationships with customers.

Turning to mapping software to find the quickest route to and from our lunch, we found that it should take about 8 minutes each way. The fact that Google Maps automatically provides a public-transportation alternative is encouraging. The fact that this alternative takes two hours longer than driving is a sign that we are not quite as advanced as we might hope to be.

Sadly, better public alternatives were removed throughout much of the Northeast and Midwest, about three quarters of a century ago, when General Motors systematically dismantled the old trolley networks.

Galloping Unicorns

The pink unicorns are rampaging again!

The U.S. Federal Reserve had some good news today: household wealth in the United States increased by three trillion dollars in the last quarter of 2013. That's $3,000,000,000, for those keeping score at home.

This pushes the total total net worth of households above $80 trillion. Most of the increase was in the value of stocks and most of the rest of the increase was in the value of real estate.

Searching the Fed web site for the term "Gini Coefficient" -- a common measure of income inequality -- I could not find any recent data. I found tables describing the total wealth in quite a variety of ways, but not stating how much of the increase wealth is accruing to people at various income levels.

The most recent reports on income inequality from other sources, however, indicates ever-increasing wealth concentration, overtaking many nations that are described -- mistakenly it seems -- as "less developed" in relation to the U.S.

Where do the pink unicorns come in? As I tell my classes in relation to the geography of global trade -- and as I have written several times on this blog -- free markets are as common as pink unicorns. Since Ronald Reagan's days at least, the United States has made strong rhetorical commitments to free trade, and has insisted on trade liberalization in the smaller economies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government -- and the Fed in particular -- intervene constantly in the economy. In news articles about the recent growth announcement, a crucial detail was buried far below the headline. As Jessica Rinaldi writes in the Reuters version of the story, the Fed's own "ultra-loose monetary policy" is responsible for much (perhaps all?) of the growth in household wealth.

The policies that are intended to grow the economy grow it at the top, while other policies -- such as a refusal to raise minimum wages and a health-care reform that keeps insurance companies in the loop -- limit growth at the bottom. The Brazilianization (that is, growing income inequality) is a predictable, if not calculated, outcome of policies that are far from neutral.

Monday, March 03, 2014


The Oscar season led New York Times writer Daniel Nester to review the year's film offering, and in watching American Hustle, he noticed that something missing: the Philadelphia accent. Until reading his "Fades Out" article, I had never realized that Philadelphia -- which he calls Filelfia -- was so linguistically distinct from other mid-Atlantic places.

Nester describes his home region's distinctive dialect as effectively as can be done visually, but his links to the video work of Fellow-delphian Sean Monahan are the real treasure in his article.

His Philly Tawk video is an excellent introduction; when I first played it, my Baltimorean wife overheard it and said "it sounds like Baltimore." Phluphian does resemble what we here in Bawlmer, but the video reveals that entire syllables are even more likely to be swallowed in the City of Brotherly Love than in Charm City. I am willing to bet that the former is also less intelligible to the average outsider.

He continues to demonstrate the dialect in Part 2, in which his work also becomes increasingly geographic. He identifies a dozen or more linguistic distinctions in the mid-Atlantic region, mapping minimal pairs (words that are the same except in a single sound) quite effectively in showing connections and distinctions up and down the I-95 corridor.

LIKE this flag!
Monahan is actually filling YouTube with his geolinguistic labors of love, and I will leave it to the reader to continue the exploration. I do, however, need to draw attention to one more video that is especially geographic. Specifically, in proposing a flag for the Delaware Valley, he begins with a definition of his home region that is primarily linguistic, and then integrates the principles of vexillology and geography to make a compelling case for regional flags in general and his own Delaware Valley flag in particular.

Textual Resistance

A couple of years ago, I acquired an Android phone -- what I call a semi-smart phone -- just because I sometimes found it difficult to check messages while traveling. My old phone had just enough Internet capability to frustrate me. The new phone was adequate for "occasionally" checking in.

I've not gotten to the point of the fellow in this scene from The New Yorker, but I can certainly empathize with him -- and with my students who cannot resist furtively (they think) checking messages during class. Connections to the outside have forever altered the nature of connections on the inside.

As I have explained in Dose of Distraction -- with the help of another cartoonist -- the brain's craving for stimulation threatens both focused learning and good manners. As someone who now has the world at my Android fingertips, I understand the challenge that phones -- especially the smart and semi-smart kinds -- pose for students. Of course, empathy and acceptance are not the same thing; these are challenges I expect students to resist.

And of course texting is not the only challenging distraction ...