Saturday, August 29, 2015

Not One Human

When I was a high school student in Kansas City, Missouri, our history class included a great deal about the importance of Missouri in the Civil War. To hear my teacher tell it, Missouri is where the outcome really was determined. During my time in the Show Me State, I spent a couple of weeks in Columbia ... long enough to know that "Cruisin' the Loop" was the main weekend activity.

These Missouri memories came together for me today, as I learned about a very geographic scandal in the capital.

The scandal involves a peculiar case of gerrymandering, an all-too-common phenomenon by which politicians try to choose their voters instead of risking the opposite. I have written about the practice extensively on this blog, especially in the 2010 post Article One: Enumeration.

This quasi-governmental business district includes just one voter.
But its goal was to include zero.
The Columbia case goes far beyond the usual tricks in which geographic skills are put to sinister uses. The usual idea is to create legislative districts that will maximize the numeric advantage of incumbents. This is reprehensible and counter to the intent of the Framers of the Constitution. It turns elections into a game, a game in which the odds are stacked in favor of the house. But at least it is a game that allows humans to vote.

The Missouri scheme tried to go a step further. Business "leaders" along the Loop in Columbia conspired to draw a boundary around a "community improvement district" in such a way that humans would not be able to vote at all. If they could achieve that, Missouri law would allow the right to vote to transfer to the businesses themselves. The fact that Missouri allows voting to default to businesses if no humans are available suggests that this scheme might have a precedent.

The reasons for the scheme were complicated, and apparently they hoped nobody would notice. They formed the district in order to make some shared capital improvements. They even used it to levy a small property-tax surcharge on themselves.

The bulk of the improvements, though, would be paid (or more accurately, repaid -- they already spent the money) by a special sales tax. In addition to shifting the cost of capital improvements to retail customers in this way, the businesses (some of which would not even have customers affected by the tax) would be able to pay an executive director with those funds.

It was because they feared voters would not approve such a regressive form of taxation -- Robin Hood in reverse, really -- they conspired to make sure no humans would get to vote on the matter.
Taxation without representation. We had a little set-to about that in Boston a while back.
It is that executive director who comes out looking the worst when they discovered that the evil clever geographers involved in this scheme might have been evil enough, but they were not clever enough. They allowed a single, pesky human to be included in the district. Jen Henderson is a student renting an apartment in the district who is not only a voter, but also an informed voter. She was pressured to disenfranchise herself so that "voting" would revert to businesses. (Scare quotes used because I still believe voting is something that only human citizens can do.) Once she learned what a serious game she was now part of, this young citizen took her civic duty very seriously and learned all she could about the issues involved. She has not announced how she will vote, but she has made it very clear she WILL vote.

Politicians who seek to disenfranchise voters are sometimes called "conservatives," but they really have no interest in conserving "American values" of democracy. Rather, they eschew Lincoln's words about the purpose of the Civil War, which was to ensure

"that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Although the Columbia case could be dismissed as a quirky story with only very localized impact, it is indicative of a political climate in which the humanity of individuals is systematically separated from what they can provide in practical terms. The rights to vote, express opinions, organize, and peaceably assemble are essential aspects of our humanity.

They are increasingly separated, however, from our ability to provide work or, as it turns out, pay taxes and fees. My essays on immigration and the human sieve describe this phenomenon in the arena of immigration policy, in which labor somehow crosses the border, but civil rights remains on the other side.

Friday, August 21, 2015

351 Town Names; No Rules

Massachusetts comprises 351 cities and towns; as I have written elsewhere, each is considered something like a sovereign nation, with all the efficiency that implies.

Some of the towns -- such as Bridgewater -- are compound English words that are easy to pronounce. Some are compound English words that are easy to pronounce but strange -- such as Braintree, while at least one is a native-American word that sounds like an odd English word: Mashpee.

But just as some common surnames have Massachusetts-only pronunciations (Gonsalves and Lopez each drop a syllable here), many of the cities and towns are difficult for foreigners to pronounce. And in this context, "foreigner" might include anyone not born in the town in question. Even apparently simple names -- like Dartmouth -- are not what they seem. Others sound almost nothing like they are spelled.

For some levity and instruction, we turn of course to YouTube.

First, some out-of-staters try ten of the hardest. This includes maps and a lot of earnest, if failed, attempts. In some cases, it is actually difficult to avoid obscenity. The entire concept of letters is called into question.

The GuyBoys -- whoever they are -- give it a try. Listen to the end for some meta comments.

Finally, a few more, with funny pictures.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Brazil Buzz

From that bottomless font of listicles comes some subtle insights into Brazilian culture. Buzzfeed presented ten Brazilian cultural traits to a group of "gringos" and recorded their responses. I am not going to translate the whole article, but I do provide the highlights below. All of them ring true, and most of them are quite familiar to me, based on visits over the past two decades to various places, mainly in Rondonia and Santa Catarina. 

This image is from the "final considerations" portion of the article. See the original article for more cool and fascinating images.

See the original article for the replies from Buzzfeed's original panel. If you don't read Portuguese, ask a friend who does to read them with you -- some of the reactions are hilarious. My own thoughts are in italics below.

1. Tomar mais de um banho por dia.

Take more than one shower a day.

This is especially common in the warmer parts of the country, and in fact the chance to take a shower will be offered to guests arriving in a home, much as they might be offered a drink. When I was in the Amazon -- a place that can be humid, smoky, and dusty all at the same time -- I often took 2, 3, or even 4 showers in a day.

This is not as wasteful as it sounds for two reasons First, these are not the long showers that North Americans often take until their water heaters are drained. Second, most Brazilian homes do not have water-heater tanks. If anything, a water heater is a small electric heater attached directly to the shower head. Not being terrified of these is another cultural distinction!

2. Escovar os dentes no trabalho.

Brush teeth at work.

I am not sure why this is not more common in other countries. 

3. Sentar ao lado do parceiro no restaurante.

Sit next to a partner at a restaurant.
I had not really noticed this, but as one respondent noted, it does make kissing your date easier.

4. Segurar sanduíche com guardanapo e comer pizza com garfo e faca.

Hold a sandwich with a napkin and eat pizza with a fork and knife.
Brazilians also tend to eat while sitting down in one place. Eating while walking or driving seems uncivilized to them. Because it is.

5. Chamar todo mundo pelo primeiro nome (inclusive a presidente da República).

Call everyone by their first name, including the president of the country.
Surnames are sometimes complicated; first names are more fun and often more unique.

6. Jogar papel higiênico sujo em um lixinho ao lado da privada.

Put toilet paper in a wastebasket next to the toilet.
This certainly got the most animated reactions from the Buzzfeed crowd. I don't think the article explains that this is common throughout Latin America, and has to do with the limitations of plumbing. Even where the plumbing could handle toilet paper, though, the habit is deeply ingrained. Of course most of the gringos on the Buzzfeed panel were horrified by this, but it really is not a big deal. Most of those little waste baskets are covered, and most are emptied frequently. It is not something that Brazilians -- or frequent visitors to Brazil -- expend much energy thinking about.

7. Ter 30 dias de férias por ano e mais de dez dias de feriados.

Have 30 days of vacation per year and more than ten days of holidays.
Something else that should be common. Can we really not get our work done in 220 days? I think that one reason Brazilians are so productive is that they know how to take a vacation -- or even a coffee break -- in a way that allows them to return to work more focused.

8. Comer abacate como fruta, inclusive com açúcar.

Eat avocado as a fruit, even with sugar.
I actually never noticed this.

9. Marcar o horário de uma festa sabendo que as pessoas só vão chegar duas ou três horas depois.

Mark the time for a party, knowing that people are only going to arrive two or three hours later.
If a party is scheduled for six, people will start getting ready at six -- to go join other friends who are on the way to the party. Around 8:30, people who have been gathering in smaller groups for a couple hours will arrive, and the room will go from empty to electric.

10. Terminar mensagens com “abraços” ou “beijos”, mesmo com pessoas que você não conhece pessoalmente.

End messages with "hugs" or "kisses," even with people you do not know personally.
There is really no down side to this.

Cultural geography examines the patterns that help to give regions an identity, to distinguish one place from another. It often begins with "big picture" cultural characteristics such as language, religion, food, and music. These are certainly important, but the finer points of ordinary life -- the mores of a culture -- can be even more instructive.

See my Musica page for more thoughts on the relationship between visible features of a culture and its deeper components.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Venice on the Charles ...

... and Other Encouraging Stories
I teach about geographic problems -- political, economic, and especially environmental -- because I think the problems are important. And I teach the complexities of the problems because I think we are far beyond simple solutions and wishful thinking. I know, however, that the insights of a geographer can begin to sound like a dismal refrain after a while. As we used to paraphrase my undergraduate advisor, "We're going to hell in a handbasket."

But I keep teaching because I know that we have somehow managed to persist for three decades past those doom-and-gloom classes of my undergraduate days, and I imagine my students (and with luck myself) will be here three decades from now. And we might as well make the best of it. The very best we can.

So with today's post I share a single link to a handful of very encouraging stories about urban environments in the face of climate change. Yes, I used "encouraging," "urban," and "climate change" in the same sentence. This episode of Living On Earth is full of valuable lessons.

I was, ironically, on a long drive when I heard this program. I missed the first segment or two, but each of the rest was both intriguing and encouraging -- uplifting, even. (I'll get the bad news out of the way now. Going back to the online version, I learned that the first segment mentioned Miami, an extremely vulnerable city that is set to be the victim of both climate change and climate denial. But enough of that.)

I enjoyed learning about the work on information technologies that promise to give Helsinkians (Helsinkers?) more choices in transportation for individual journeys while greatly reducing both traffic and parking overall. Then I learned about the thorough integration of green roofs in Copenhagen, where great attention to detail provides benefits for individual buildings and for the city as a whole. Green roofs are very important for ameliorating the urban heat-island effect, which adds several degrees of heating to regionally prevalent temperatures. Then I learned that the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil has put together a compendium of suggestions for improving urban environments. His interview alone is a rich education. Rather than writing a manual about recreating the improvements in his city -- often called the best-planned in the world -- he brings together snippets of innovation from many places. His emphasis is on good ideas that can be implemented quickly. If his ideas can be implemented in Brazilian government (with a reputation for extreme bureaucracy) there is at least a little hope for those of us working in bureaucratic university environments.

The icing on the proverbial cake, though, was about the Back Bay of Boston, where I was walking with a Brazilian colleague just a couple of days ago. About 1/3 of Beantown (also known as the Hub of the Universe) was marsh or open water two centuries ago. It is among the world cities most vulnerable to rising seas, because so much of it was in the sea so recently. Some cities are erecting hard barriers, and some -- like New York City -- are working on soft barriers. The answer for Boston might be something else entirely: bringing the ocean in. Listen to the final segment to learn about a vision for tidal canals inside the city of Boston!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ordering Progress ... and a Side of Fries

For some in Brazil, the national motto "Order and Progress" could be
 "Order some Fries...That's Progress!" 
In an era of increasingly rapid global connections, the diffusion of innovations can be both more rapid and more thorough than in the past. I was reminded of this by the recent story of the cyber-shaming of Bela Gil.

First of all, cyber-shaming itself is an export of which my country should not be proud. The incredible power of computing and communicating is too often employed to give thousands of people the opportunity to behave as sand-lot bullies, picking on people over minor flaws, real or imagined.
Second, the particular reason that the Brazilian food writer Bela Gil is being harassed is that many of her fellow Brazilians have mistaken processed food for economic progress. Gil's flaw? Packing a healthy lunch for her daughter. Really.