Sunday, September 28, 2014

Real Patriotism

Real patriotism, it seems to me, celebrates what is best about one's country, and commits to making it even better. This is the essence of AmeriCorps, the national-service organization that recently celebrated 20 years of good work. Tens of thousands of recent high-school and college graduates -- including quite a few of my former students -- have served their country in parks, streams, schools, libraries, gymnasiums, health centers from sea to shining sea.

As reported in the Boston Globe, four of the presidents in this file photo -- George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton -- participated in 20th anniversary celebrations of AmeriCorps. (The program began after President Carter had left office.)

At the White House, at Kennebunkport, and at a total of 95 celebrations across the country, Americans across the political spectrum  lauded this cost-effective program that builds skills while improving the communities in which we live.

Tufts University Dean Alan Solomont explains that AmeriCorps is really just the latest chapter in a century-long commitment to public service in the United States. Most people understand its importance -- which is the domestic counterpart to the international service of soldiers and diplomats. He explains, however, that the dysfunctional United States Congress has been unwilling to fund it to the level that these presidents have requested.

The reasons for this lack of patriotism are several. First is the embrace of many members of Congress of the twin fetishes of privatization and tax cuts. Although spending on Americorps is trivial in comparison to weapons systems or bank bailouts, AmeriCorps volunteers cannot rent or purchase Congress Critters, so they are an easy target for cost-cutting. Second, although the Constitution requires voters to choose representatives, the manipulation of district boundaries and voting rules allows the process to be reversed, and a significant number of representatives are able to choose voters who support the ideologies of their patrons on K Street.

The result is a lamentable situation in which none of us -- poor or wealthy -- is living in a country that is as good as it could be. As the study Spirit Level found, we are all better off if we are all better off.

Friday, September 26, 2014

How Germy is that Keurig?

In just a few years, the Keurig has become a wildly popular way to brew coffee. Relative to other methods, it offers slightly more convenience in exchange for extremely high costs, poor quality, and excessive packaging.

I have been unable to wrap my head around a central paradox of the rise of Keurig, which  has been contemporaneous with my own development as a coffee maven. That paradox is that shortly after it was launched, Keurig was purchased by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which was still a mid-sized coffee roaster in our region. I have meet Green Mountain staff on several occasions while exploring socially and environmentally sustainable coffee in Matagalpa, and I know the company does a lot of good. Even though a lot of that good work continues, by growing its business around convenience at all costs, that work is diluted -- as diluted as the coffee itself. For every partnership with a halo brand such as Newman's Own, there is a dalliance with such perditious brands as the dreaded Dunkin Donuts. With Keurig, GMCR has lost its way.

The power of convenience is so strong, however, that Keurig continues to grow. Even if they eschew the overpriced pods from the manufacturer (I had the privilege of watching these get filled at the factory -- truly amazing, but not worth $40-$70 per pound), people find a way to keep using their Keurigs. Even if they know about the waste and the poor quality (even the best coffee cannot stand up to the Keurig treatment), they embrace these machines. (For alternatives, see my Coffee Care page.)

But perhaps the latest news will change that .What if the Keurig is just disgusting? When microbiologist Erin Chamberlik found that she could not get the inside of the Keurig dry, she started a little investigation, and concluded that she had no choice but to Kick the Keurig to the Curb.

I am reminded that in my own building -- a $100,000,000 science facility -- we have no real coffee source, though students, faculty, and staff have proposed a world-class café. So in addition to the unsustainable vending machines in the lobby, the offices of scientists are gradually filling with unsustainable -- and unhealthy -- coffee machines.

Note: To learn more about efforts to change the coffee culture at BSU, visit the Ben Linder Cafe page on Facebook.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


In teaching about the disparities in the world space-economy, I often begin the discussion with a story of a series of walks I took in Washington, D.C. with Brazilian geography students a few years ago. We were staying at a hotel in Chinatown while attending a conference at George Washington University. Of course the major highlight of such a walk is the White House, and our visitors were excited when we were ushered off a street for a motorcade -- it was only a dozen cars, though, so clearly not the president, but still exciting.

I was more interested, though, in their reaction to a rather boring, gray structure a few blocks to the north. When they noticed the World Bank (for policy nerds, the WB has nothing to do with entertainment television), they would pretend to expectorate in its general direction.

What could cause such a crude reaction among these otherwise refined young scholars, especially in regard to an institution most of their U.S. peers have never heard of? The answer: SAPs -- Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (the difference between the two is a subtlety for real policy nerds) as a result of loan defaults dating back to the debt crisis of the 1980s. Yes, it was in the decade before these students were born that reckless lending officers in the private banks of the United States and Europe colluded with corrupt (or worse) governments in developing countries to create a credit bubble far greater than that created by George W. Bush in 2008.

The result of the ensuing collapse was penury for hundreds of millions of people and a significant threat to the world banking system. As I explain on my (somewhat out-of-date) International Debt Relief page, the U.S. Treasury stepped in to rescue the lenders, turning bad private loans into somewhat more stable public loans. The net result was that multilateral lending agencies ended up with immense influence on the fiscal decision making of scores of developing countries.

All of this is necessary background to understanding the importance of a new bank being formed by the BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The financial implications in the short run may be modest, but this marks a determination on the part of these countries to ensure that their financial successes result in more policy independence.

As I prepared this post, I was reminded that it is not just the IMF that disregards the sovereignty of some nation-states -- professional soccer has done the same.

The differences between presidents Vladimir Putin and Dilma Rousseff are emblematic of the very divergent nature of the five countries that form the new bank. But economic sovereignty is a goal they all share.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Coffee Catch-up

I sometimes start my coffee courses with this song, though this video rendition is new to me. It is included for sheer fun, and also because of a pun that works between the lyrics and the title of this post.

As a compulsive blogger, I sometimes have waaaay too many tabs open on my computer, and right now several of them have to do with coffee. Taking the time to blog about each one would be a great way to procrastinate on other tasks, but I am choosing to employ the original meaning of blog a "web log" or simple listing of interesting sites encountered while browsing.

So with minimal commentary, here are a few disparate articles that have caught my attention recently.

Writing for Bloomberg, Marvin Perez explains how the climate-stoked roya fungus threatens organic coffee. This article is an excellent introduction to an issue that concerns many of my friends in Central America and should concern anybody interested in coffee and climate justice.

The blog PHYS.ORG summarizes a new report on the mapping of the coffee genome, which has interesting implications for understanding the role of caffeine as both an attractor of pollinators and a repellant for insect pests. I understood about 3/4 of this article, so I have shared it with colleagues in chemistry and biology with whom I have been in increasingly specific discussions of interdisciplinary undergraduate research on coffee and caffeine.

Writing for Serious Eats, coffee pundit Nick Cho describes how to make the best French-press coffee at home. I was going to write a whole piece explaining a couple of ways to improve on his advice, but this tab has been open forever, so I'll just share and move on. Except to mention that if your kitchen is cold, you should wrap a towel around the carafe as it brews, and that you can experiment a bit with brew times and grinds until you find what makes the coffee perfect for you. Starting with excellent coffee and grinding it for each preparation are given, of course.

Also open on my computer for a long time has been NY Times blogger Jon Grinspan's fascinating explanation of how coffee fueled the Civil War.

Finally -- and I did write that this is a disparate assortment -- Boston University graduates have created Coffee, a social-networking app for users of Apple mobile devices who are seeking employment. I do not have such a device and am not seeking employment, but among my students and alumni who might use this app, some are true coffee experts. My estimation of the app will be how well it helps them find coffee-related employment!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sieve Details

I have long argued that U.S. border policy serves as a human sieve, detaining persons while allowing their labor or wealth to flow. I have written about many other aspects of misguided policy -- and misplaced thinking -- about migration.
Commerce continues at what used to be my favorite crossing point -- 100 km south of Tucson, between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, but under increasingly militarized conditions.
From Tucson, we moved to Pharr, Texas, where we had bridges directly into Tamaulipas.
I am very thankful to Roque Planas for his eloquent discussion of how to fix migration. He goes farther than I have done, but he makes the case quite clearly. Nothing about our current approach to migration policy is worth saving. Scrap it all, he says, and provides 16 compelling reasons. I would challenge skeptics to think very seriously about his reason #10: hardened borders serve as a kind of ratchet. The harder it is to get in, the more likely people are to stay once they arrive. His ethical and economic reasons are even more compelling in my view, but #16 points to one of the biggest obstacles: some people make a handsome income from unreasonably limiting the freedoms of the rest of us.

September 11, 1973

El otro 9-11 from Pancho Films on Vimeo.

Yesterday, of course, I joined my neighbors in remembering with shock and sorrow that clear, crisp morning when asymmetric war -- terror -- ripped into our lives. My own father spent part of his birthday watching the smoke pour from the deeply wounded Pentagon. A student who was in my class at the moment of the attacks lost her aunt, and did not return that semester. I also remember the brief period during which E pluribus unum really described our mood. Even in New England, people were polite on the highways. Before a small cabal figured out how to use the attack as a pretext for their long-desired war on Iraq, we even had the sympathy of the entire world (see the murals in Managua as an example).

All of this is to say that I honor the day and what it means for my own country. So I refrained from posting this story on that sensitive date. But I am also a citizen of the wider world, and I cannot ignore another terrible crime of a different September 11 -- a generation earlier and committed not against the United States, but rather with its support.

Henry Kissinger -- who is now called upon for his opinions on thwarting terror -- was an author of the terror that gripped Chile on September 11, 1973. Thought by some to be a brilliant geopolitician, Nixon's Secretary of State argued that Chile -- with its long, narrow shape -- represented a "dagger aimed at the heart of Antarctica."

So it was that the freely-elected,  president of that republic was violently overthrown by his own military, simply for seen as being to the left of center. The video above captures the turmoil and the last moments of a president's dedication to his people. He died at his own hand shortly after the speech, knowing he could hold out no longer against the attack on the presidential palace. The full speech is available on a video and in printed translation from Latino Rebels, and is well worth reading or listening. The aftermath, of course, was the long nightmare of Pinochet, who became of the notorious "friendly dictators" the United States has helped to install or maintain throughout the world.

The declassified record of Kissinger and Chile at the National Security Archive helps to put all of this in context, and to connect the crimes of September 11, 1973 to those that inevitably followed.

Friday, September 05, 2014

¡Gracias Totales!

I first became involved in Latin America because of environmental concerns, specifically deforestation in the Amazon basin. When I eventually made my way to Rondônia to study the problem, I began to appreciate the incredible variety of music from Brazil and the entire region. Eventually the cultural geography of Latin American music became a strong interest, and I weave it into my teaching and have given quite a few public lectures on the subject.

But I will never be an expert on the music of Latin America. First, I have almost no formal training in music. Second, my competence in the languages in which the music is sung is somewhere between mediocre and rudimentary. Third, Latin America encompasses dozens of countries, with thousands of artists producing fabulous music that deserves my attention, but each week comes with only 168 hours to listen and learn.

But every once in a while, I learn about a major artist -- or even an entire genre -- who had previous escaped my notice. Today was such a day, as I waited in traffic listening to The World on WGBH. It was here that the Global Hit segment was recognizing the death of Argentine Gustavo Cerati, who had been in a coma for several years. The millions of fans of his band Soda Stereo had been hoping for a recovery, and apparently the entire nation of Argentina was in mourning, with his music playing in most public places today.

Cerati famously ended his concert with the words "Gracias Totales" -- thanks for all -- which rapidly became the hashtag marking online remembrances worldwide.


NOTE: The audio for this story is not available as a separate segment from the links above. It is worth seeking, though, on the Sept 4 broadcast. It is the last segment, starting about 05:30 from the end of the file. An NPR obituary blog post by Jasmine Garsd provides a more comprehensive retrospective and puts Cerati's work in the context of Argentine politics as well as 1980s popular music globally.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The Greek word element eu signifies something good -- the good words of a eulogy, the good sound of euphony, the good speech of a euphemism -- but in the case of eutrophication, the nutrients are not just good. They are too good. Excessive nutrients in waterways lead to excessive algae, which in turn depletes oxygen and can also just look and smell nasty.

Those concerned with water quality recognize the seriousness of eutrophication. It is a major reason for the arduous Title V septic-system requirements in Massachusetts, and a major part of the secondary-school outreach of my university's Watershed Access Lab.

Because certain kinds of algae create toxins, though, eutrophication can actually be a matter of life and death, as in the recent contamination of the Toledo, Ohio water supply. On September 4, the PBS Newshour program included an in-depth discussion of long-term research on algae in Lake Erie. It is a very good introduction to the causes, consequences, and importance of eutrophication; it is for a general audience, though, and does not even use the word.

The story is from the point of view of experts on water quality itself, but also illustrates the interrelated nature of the environmental challenges we face. Human and physical geography are essential to understanding the linkages among climate change, agricultural practices, urban land use, and environmental regulation that end up determining what comes out of a kitchen faucet.


The story is also an example of the importance of long-term work in basic science. Consistent monitoring over decades is often tedious, lonely work, and work whose benefits may not be immediately obvious. The work at the center of this story has been conducted for decades at the OSU Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. Zoom in and out of the map below to appreciate this unusual location, which Pam and I had the privilege of visiting when a fellow graduate student from Miami University was spending a summer at the lab. It is an island in a bay of an island in a lake -- and much closer to Canada than I realized. To visit our friend Carol, we had to drive to Port Clinton (near Toledo), take a ferry to South Bass Island, and then take one of the lab's boat from the vacationland of Put-in Bay to the lab itself. The tiny research boat was conspicuous among the gleaming yachts.