Saturday, October 21, 2017

Advancing Science on Retreating Glaciers

This is a critical time for the world's retreating glaciers. In fact, it could be said that the most critical time -- when their retreat could have been arrested -- has already passed. Still, the status of glaciers are among the strongest indicators of climate change, and their loss is among its most dangerous consequences.

First, their role as indicators. Glaciers are long-term accumulations of frozen water (ice and snow), usually at high elevation. During particularly cold periods in the Pleistocene, continental glaciers were found at sea level, but in the Holocene epoch, glaciers have been strictly alpine. Wherever they are found, they represent a balance between a colder zone of accumulation -- in which more snow falls during a year than melts -- and a warmer zone of ablation, in which the opposite occurs.

The exact position of the nose of the glacier will fluctuate seasonally and over time, as this balance shifts. When the position of the nose at a given time of year is consistently moving upslope, the glacier is said to be retreating, indicating a steady warming. We would know that the planet is warming without these indicators, but the retreat of glaciers from Glacier National Monument to Kilimanjaro and Tibet to Cochabamba is evidence that one has to work pretty hard to ignore. (For those unfamiliar with Cochabamba, please see my posts Cochabamba Continued (2012), The Most Important Town in the Americas (2013), and Snowboarders Rescue Our Climate (2016 student guest blog).

It was in this context that I listened to Rob Schmitz' cogent reporting on the work of Chinese climate scientists who are documenting the retreat of the thousands of glaciers in that country. One of the excuses for the U.S. refusal to participate in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was that it did not require enough of China and other rapidly developing countries. Ironically, just as China has caught up to the United States as a contributor to the problem of climate change, it is stepping up to support the Paris Accord, even as the U.S. retreats.

In Impossible to Save, Schmitz accompanies scientists who know that the glaciers they study will not stop retreating; they hope, however, that their work will encourage changes that will slow down the pace of change. In this brief and well-organized report, they clearly describe not only the evidence of shrinkage but also its implications. Humans rely on glaciers in ways that few outside of alpine areas understand. They are the reservoirs that supply water and irrigate crops for many millions of people.

I have become very interested in glaciers as I teach about the geographies of coffee and tea, because both crops are threatened in some areas by the loss of glaciers. This was, in fact, to have been the subject of a course that I offered in partnership with a colleague who researches glacial retreat in Peru. Dr. Rob Hellström and I planned Coffee and Climate Change in Peru as a field course that would visit his research stations and communities of coffee farmers who are affected by many aspects of climate change. We did not enroll quite enough students to carry out the course, but we will try again to offer it in the near future.
Periglacial research station in Peru.
Photo: Dr. Rob Hellström

Texas Southmost Reporter

Kayla America Fuentes interviewing Cuban Alfredo "Rusty" Monsees at his home on the eponymous road in Brownsville Photo: Debbie Nathan.
When I was teaching at UTB-Texas Southmost College (now UT-RGV) , some of my students walked to class directly from their homes in Mexico. The fellow in this story grew up -- and continues to live -- in the tiny patch of Texas even farther south than THAT.

Kayla America Fuentes is a local teenager heard a lot of stories about him, and decided to do an interview. The result is an article whose unconventional title mentions the subject, the reporter, and the motivation for the reporting itself. The Old Man Who Calls Border Patrol on Immigrants, and the Teen Girl Who Asked Him Why shows that she is off to a great start as a journalist. She already has the curiosity, tenacity, and writing skills of a seasoned reporter.

Rather than try to summarize her work or comment on its implications, I encourage readers to read the article to the end. It gives us plenty to think about.


The map shows places named for two people mentioned in the story -- Mr. Monsees himself and Pancho Villa.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Professional Regions

"Not all who wander are lost"
~~ J.R.R. Tolkien, linguist, author, and honorary geographer

I have often said that if you enjoy being lost, you should travel with geographers. It works especially well if we are in a van. Last year four of us -- with three GPS units -- got lost going to a school we had been to before. But we learned so much local geography along the way, so we considered it a win.

It should come as no surprise, then, that geographers are not to be trusted with the drawing of regional boundaries. The American Association of Geographers (née Association of American Geographers) boast nine regional divisions, shown here:

Click to enlarge
Keeping in mind that regions are to geography as gravity is to physics: understanding regions is what we do, it is fascinating that this is what we have come up with.

I have been in all of nine of these regions, and have taught or studied geography in five of them. I first noticed something odd the first time I was involved in hosting one of the regional meetings. Professor George Strait had something to say about this --

That's right: I was leading field trips in the Arizona desert for a meeting of the Pacific Coast geographers. The excuse, I heard, was that two of the professors in my Tucson department enjoyed going to meetings in Hawaii as often as they could. I guess their pals in Nevada and Idaho felt the same way.

But that is not nearly all. From Arizona, I moved to Texas (about 100 miles south of George Strait's ranch, btw), where I attended a meeting of the Southwest AAG. The inclusion of Texas made sense, and I had already given up on Arizona, but Arkansas and Louisiana? I don't think so.

Some of the regions do make sense: Great Plains/Rocky Mountains is not a succinct name, but anybody who sees the name would know what states are included. Similarly, the subdivision of the former Great Lakes division makes sense, because there are so very many geography departments there. I am pretty sure there are at least two places to get a Ph.D. in geography in each state within each region. So the split makes sense, and although "Midwest" would have been a more conventional choice for a name, "Lakes" sounds nice, and it would have been quite messy to have "West Midwest" and "East Midwest." So we geographers did well with the middle of the country.

Back to the oddities, proceeding counterclockwise. At first glance, the Southeast makes sense, until we realize that it includes West Virginia, a state formed in 1863 precisely to get some parts of Virginia out of the south. We made the big time with this -- Wikipedia points out that AAG and the Census Bureau classify West Virginia this way, in its discussion of all the regions to which this state is sometimes assigned.

Next comes the Middle Atlantic division, which includes the place where I became a geographer (UMBC in Catonsville) and where I became a person (the erstwhile Columbia Hospital for Women in D.C.) There is nothing really wrong with this region -- it is in the middle of the Atlantic coast of the U.S. But it seems rather small -- just a state plus a city that used to be part of the very same state. It is a maritime state, but not so much on the Atlantic side. It has about 150 miles of Chesapeake Bay coastline, but only 31 miles on the Atlantic Ocean.

Next come the Middle States, crammed almost as far into the northeast corner as states can be, and actually bordering Canada!

Finally, our own NESTVAL -- both a division of the AAG and a separate, older society of its own: The New England and St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society (whose annual meeting I am missing this weekend, for only the second time in 20 years). "Where is the St. Lawrence Valley?" a student asked me yesterday. "Not on this map," I replied.

I was once the newsletter editor for NESTVAL, a position for which I volunteered because I was pretty good at putting together a decent-looking publication. I am not, however, any good at keeping track of membership lists in ambiguous circumstances, and so I failed spectacularly at the newsletter mailing list. Members of the other 8 divisions are simply the AAG members with mailing addresses in those divisional boundaries. NESTVAL membership also includes those who are AAG or CAC-ACG with addresses in certain parts of Canada, plus anybody who simply decides to show up and pay NESTVAL dues. So although NESTVAL looks like an area on the map of the United States shown above, it is much more like a state of mind.

So anybody needing to have regions drawn, feel free to call on us professionals!


One fellow geographer who read this decided to look for other regional schemes. He was pleased to find that the regions used for reporting purposes in the National Climate Assessment (which as of this posting is still available to the public, despite the current project of silencing government scientists -- but that is a subject for another post) follows a pattern more familiar to the general public.
Click to enlarge
Another geographer recently shared this map of the United States, if it might look if a professional design team had been consulted.
Click to enlarge

Regionalization is an equally fraught term as it applies to municipal government in Massachusetts -- home to 351 cities and towns, with an unknown number of school districts!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Puerto Rico: Open-ended Crisis

I started this blog post just after Hurricane Maria made landfall, as it became clear that an unprecedented onslaught of back-to-back major hurricanes was to be compounded by unprecedented neglect of a natural disaster on U.S. territory.

I heard the phrase "open-ended crisis" in a discussion on National Public Radio, as I began to gather links and to write. As I kept a growing number of tabs open on my Mac, this post grew in length and complexity -- and somehow I eventually lost all of that writing. I did manage to keep most of the links that I had found most instructive, though, so I am going to share them here with minimal commentary. Unfortunately, they are going to be relevant for a very long time to come.

First, one video recommendation:

For U.S. mainlanders who do not know much about Puerto Rico -- which is to say, most U.S. mainlanders -- I highly recommend the 2006 film ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas! (I'm Puerto Rican, Just So You Know) by the comedienne Rosie Perez as a starting point. It is a personal journey of discovery for her and some of her family members, who themselves did not know some important elements of the relationship between the United States and its biggest colony. The film is on Netflix DVD only, and on YouTube (above).

And now some print and radio links. Where possible, I lead with the names of the journalists involved, because they are an essential and maligned element of our democracy.

First, about the storm before the storm:

Vann Newkirk, The Atlantic (published in June 2017): Puerto Rico's Plebiscite to Nowhere
The territory’s recent vote in favor of statehood faces long odds in Congress

Michelle Chen, The Nation: The Bankers Behind Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis

Maria Fabrizio, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (June 2016): Future of Puerto Rico Remains in Limbo as Congress Delays Decision and U.S. Supreme Court Entrenches Colonial Legacy in Puerto Rico

And then the storm itself

Brian Resnick and Eliza Barclay on Vox: What Every American Needs to Know About Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Disaster

Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post: White House is restricting lawmakers from visiting Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, aides say  and also, Sad suspicions about his motivations

Tyler Cohen, Denver Post: Puerto Rico's American Dream Died in the Storm

Jenny Marder, PBS News Hour: After First Tour of Puerto Rico, Top General Calls Damage "The Worst He's Ever Seen"

Rebecca Shapiro, Huffpost U.S. News: Katrina Commander Swears On Live TV Over Puerto Rico Response

Carolina Moreno, Huffpost Latino Voices: Puerto Rico Governor Calls White House After Trump’s Unsettling FEMA Tweets (Ricardo Rosselló wants the islanders to be treated equally to any other U.S. citizens after a disaster.)

Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg View: Trump to Executive Branch: Don't Worry About Puerto Rico

Sheila Norton, Verified Politics: Trump Just Reinstated Restrictions On Hurricane Aid To Puerto Rico

David Ferguson, Raw Story: ‘Stop the genocide’: San Juan mayor begs UN and UNICEF for help Trump won’t give Puerto Rico. The word "genocide" should never be used lightly, but this situation is far from light, and if this were taking place in any other country, it is exactly the word we would be using.

Conlan, Washington Polity: FEMA Just issued a Powerful Statement against Trump on Puerto Rico

Timothy Gardner, Reuters: Senator McCain Introduces Legislation to Kill the Jones Act in Puerto Rico

David Dayen, The Intercept: Puerto Rico Relief Bill Cancels $16 Billion in Debt -- But not for Puerto Rico

Jenna Johnson, Washington Post: Many Trump voters who got hurricane relief in Texas aren’t sure Puerto Ricans should. This article describes a Texas couple who split their vote in November, and who have split opinions now. They both benefited from a $14,000 FEMA check, despite having no flood insurance. But along party lines within their household, one thinks that Puerto Rico deserves more help and the other thinks they should not.

Shannon Collins, U.S. Department of Defense News: Puerto Ricans Represented Throughout U.S. Military History. I sought out this story after reading the president's audacious claim that the DoD would be leaving the island soon. Not only does the DoD have permanent bases on the island, we learned from Rosie Perez that Puerto Ricans are among the Americans most likely to serve in the military. In fact, the Commonwealth status was contrived in part to make sure that Puerto Ricans could serve in World War I. It is dastardly to even mention the possibility of removing troops from the island while its people are still dying.

Michael Tackett, New York TimesAn Exodus From Puerto Rico Could Remake Florida Politics. Denial of statehood to Puerto Rico has been entirely driven by partisan politics, so it is interesting to contemplate how the extreme mistreatment of the island's people could have unintended consequences for the political balance.

Photo: Angel Valentin
Mandalit Del Barco and Lauren Migaki, NPR: Puerto Rico's 'Singing Newspapers' Tell A Story Of Resilience

Corinne Segal, PBS Newshour: Volunteers are helping Puerto Rico from home, with a map anyone can edit

Near the villa we rented Photo: JHB
To end this with something positive, I include my photos from my family's first visit to Puerto Rico, which was in 2016 and Help for Puerto Rico, about a former student of mine who worked with his friend and colleagues to bring help directly to some of the people of Puerto Rico.

These Trucks Don't Float

My grandfather climbed poles for Ma Bell his whole adult life. And after hurricanes, he would travel to restore phones and electricity -- climbing poles by hand. 

Weston Tolls

It's easier now with bucket trucks, but not exactly easy. I remember driving through the town of Weston a few years ago, just before a major storm was to hit the Boston area. As I approached an overpass that connects Interstate 90 (Mass Turnpike and NY State Thruway) to Boston's ring road 128, I saw a caravan like this one pouring into Boston from the west. 
I knew what those men and women would be doing for us, and that they had traveled all night to do it. I almost wept at the sight.

When this happens on an ISLAND, even more effort is needed. Ships, cargo planes, whatever it takes. BEFORE Irma and BEFORE Maria, those trucks should have been in motion, headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. We should do the same for other islands in our hemisphere, but we absolutely must do it for those islands that are U.S. territory.

Instead, such efforts were hindered by red tape and a century-old law to protect the profits of shipping countries.

I am astounded at the heroic work of local and federal employees on the ground in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but also disgusted that they are not given full support by Congress or the White House, as such workers would be in any mainland territory, from Boston to Brownsville, in hurricane season.

The government is getting away with this neglect -- which has genocidal overtones -- precisely because geographic literacy is so poor that many constituents either:

a) Don't know these are U.S. territorie
b) Don't care
c) Don't know how islands work, or
d) all of the above
Our feeble response to Puerto Rico is an indictment of our society in many ways, of which our neglect of geographic education is just one.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Emotional Skepticism

I am not a librarian -- not nearly well-organized enough for that -- but I have picked up a lot of librarian values from three decades spent with a librarian who is not only an extraordinary practitioner of the bibliothecary arts, but also a scholar of knowledge itself. Lately, her scholarship on information literacy in general has led her to collaboration on empirical research into the "fake news" phenomenon in particular.

That jarring phrase has also had the attention of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, which decided to devote its Annual Forum to the topic this year. This turned out to be a perfect date for a geographer and librarian, especially since the forum was to be held in the Boston Public Library!

The event was entitled What's New About Fake News?, and was in the form of a panel discussion, with journalist Sasha Pfeiffer (of both the Boston Globe and WBUR) serving as moderator. The panel was very well chosen -- and would no doubt have been even more compelling had Professor Jelani Cobb not needed to cancel.
First lesson: Let's not use this phrase.
L-R: Sasha Pfeiffer, Marnie Shure, Charles Ferguson, Claire Wardle
The discussion was wide-ranging, with insights both alarming and constructive. I was grateful for the many new ways of thinking about our current predicament that the panelists and moderators shared, and even for most of the comments and questions from the audience. It was information scholar Claire Wardle, however, who gave us the most readily applicable ideas for beginning to work our way out of the impasse that has been created by dangerous levels of disregard for facts and distrust of sources.

Being Specific 

First, even though the phrase "fake news" was in the title of the day's program, she admonished listeners and fellow panelists to avoid using the phrase altogether, and after a couple of missteps, they actually managed to do so. Referring to the "weaponizing" of communication strategies, she asserted that the phrase "fake news" is used primarily to attack journalism, so journalists should refuse to participate in their own denigration by using it.

Rather, she said, since the term can be used to refer to several VERY different kinds of messages, we should simply indicate which kind is being discussed. To whit:
  • misinformation is something presented as a fact that is not correct; another word is "mistake"
  • disinformation is misinformation that is presented deliberately, with the intention to mislead those who hear or read it, or perhaps to foster discord
  • satire is mistaken information in the form of a joke, which both its creators and its consumers understand to be carefully constructed to shed light on some deeper truth; we were fortunate to have fellow panelist Marnie Shure of The Onion to provide a much deeper understanding of this important kind of commentary
  • reports that simply make the powerful feel uncomfortable are the most likely to be called "fake news," but they are not, in fact, fake
By framing the concept in this way at the very beginning, Wardle helped the entire panel to speak with greater precision about the new ways in which information really is being manipulated.

The "takeaway" from this part of the discussion is that any time we see the phrase "fake news," we should try to assign it to its proper category; this will help us to understand what is worth sharing and what is worth getting alarmed about.

Slow It Down

Which leads me to Wardle's second, perhaps more important suggestion. As someone who has worked on social-media campaigns at a very high level, she understands both how erroneous information gets propagated and the harm it can do. She suggests two ways of fostering what she terms "emotional skepticism" that I think she intended as safeguards within social-media operating systems. The can, for now, simply be seen as guidelines for individual users of social media.
  • Don't share anything before reading it to the end.
  • Don't share anything to which you have an emotional reaction, until you've waited two minutes to calm down.
I try -- and sometimes fail -- to do both of these things. 


In response to a cogent question from the audience, the panelists discussed the opacity of the algorithms that are used to shape each person's newsfeeds and search-engine results. The major technology companies know things about us that we do not know ourselves, and they feed information to us based on those things they know. The ways in which both things are accomplished are opaque to the users, and all of the panelists argued that making these algorithms at least somewhat transparent would give us some defense against being manipulated -- either as individuals or entire electorates.

Until that day of transparency comes, I have a suggestion of my own. We do not know the details of the algorithms at work behind the systems we use, but we know that they all tend to reinforce confirmation bias. We are increasingly unable to understand each other because there is so little overlap among the things we read and listen to. It is up to us, therefore, to seek out information sources -- and people -- with as wide a variety of viewpoints as we can manage.

The more we know, the harder we are to fool. It was fitting that the MassHumanties director ended the program by encouraging us to draw on the expertise of librarians when trying to ascertain the veracity of something we are asked to believe. I am reminded of the words of Congressman John Lewis, as I quoted him on this blog almost a year ago:

Friday, October 13, 2017

Pronounced thea-een

Tea and coffee provide stimulation by way of a compound found in both plants and in the respective beverages produced from their leaves and seeds, respectively. The stimulant effect differs between the two, however, and also differs considerably according to the way tea, in particular, is processed.

Image: Tea Class
The differences between tea and coffee is substantial enough, in fact, that when caffeine was first isolated in tea in 1827, it was thought to be a different compound and was known as theine. The Oxford English dictionary provides two alternate pronunciations of this awkward word, using both proper phonetic symbols and recordings.
I learned of this distinction from the Cisco Brew article Caffeine and Tea, which explains not only why caffeine behaves differently in tea and coffee, but also how caffeine levels vary according to various tea preparations. The article alludes to preparations (white, green, oolong, black), origins, and varietals, notably sinensis and assamica. I mistakenly read this as suggesting that assamica is a separate species; in seeking clarification I found the excellent article Camellia sinensis on Tea Class, from which I lifted the lovely photo of a tea flower to the right.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Through the Wall

Many who call for the building of a border wall do not realize that it already exists. A recent project by JR Artist recently called attention to this division that has already been imposed, through an installation in Tecate/Tecate.

One important image is of a baby overlooking the wall. Babies, of course, do not understand such barriers.
Image: JR Artist
As someone who spent seven years living near the border, I am even more intrigued -- and encouraged -- by the picnic that was held as part of the celebration of this art. A band ("conjunto" in Spanish, or "together") was divided by the wall but played together for those who had assembled for the meal.
Image: JR Artist -- be sure to read his description and the comments
In hurricanes, the term "eye wall" refers to the very turbulent ring of clouds surrounding the calm center of the storm. The picnickers who ring this eye are exhibiting calm within a storm of a different kind.

The artist and an agent were able, near the end of this multi-day exhibit, to share a cup of tea.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Praia Mais Famosa

While watching the marvelous movie Landfill Harmonic (more on this in a later post), I noticed that a pivotal moment in the lives of the young musicians from the margins of Asunción was the opportunity to bring their music to another country. That the country was Brazil -- and no less an iconic locale than Ipanema Beach in Rio -- made it even more exhilarating for these young people.
Photo: Ipanema Inn
Until that moment in the film, I had not really thought about what it means to live in a land-locked country. The Western Hemisphere has only two -- Paraguay and Bolivia -- and I had thought about the disadvantages only in terms of economic and military limitations. But of course it also means that these entire countries are populated by people who can only go to a real beach if they travel internationally. Since most people never leave their home countries, this means that the landlocked might pass their entire lives without the deeply profound experience of standing on the edge of land and sea.

In the film, this is expressed in very simple terms, as the teens, many of them wearing swimsuits purchased just for the occasion, run and skip, chanting "Vamos a la playa! Vamos a la playa!"

Their simple song reminded me of one of the twentieth century's great songs, named for the same beach. A professor of Brazilian history once told our class, "If your grandparents were sophisticated, they probably owned an album of bossa nova music." In my case, it was my great-grandparents who came to mind. Though I do not remember hearing the music in their home, I am certain they had at least one example, and it would be "Garota de Ipanema."

"The Girl from Ipanema" -- as it is known in English -- is the perfect bridge between American jazz and Brazilian bossa nova, as the definitive recording was made by musicians who were well established in both genres -- Stan Getz and João Gilberto. Just seven weeks before I was born, these three were in New York City working on what would become -- for me -- the definitive recording of the song.

As described in Lydia Hutchinson's informative account on Performing Songwriter, they decided to record one verse in English, and also realized that João's wife Astrud was best qualified to perform it. I still prefer that original recording, in both languages, but Hutchinson's article includes this fully English version with only Astrud singing. Recorded in 1964, it has has over 18,000,000 views since uploaded to YouTube in 2009. On average, 10 people are listening to this particular recording all the time.

Hutchinson's reporting dispels a misimpression I had, which was that the young woman -- the "garota" or "girl" -- who inspired the song was languishing somewhere in obscurity, perhaps unaware of what she had started. This is far from the case. Though Helô Pinheiro was unable to collect any royalties from the song itself, she did win legal battles that have allowed her and even her daughter to parlay the fame into success in modeling and other professions.
The song has been covered by more artists than any other song, except for McCartney's "Yesterday." A quick Google search, in fact, might lead one to believe that "The Girl from Ipanema" is mainly a Frank Sinatra song.

And I almost forgot: Ipanema is a place, so we need a map. Immediately to the west of Ipanema is the favela of Rocinha -- one of the most notorious neighborhoods on the planet. When I took a private tour of the city a number of years ago, I could barely convince my driver to go there mid-day. As a geographer, I was equally happy to visit both neighborhoods.

*For the title of this post, I use the Portuguese phrase for "The Most Famous Beach," which in Spanish would be "La Playa Más Famosa."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Three Coffees, Hold the Goat

Image: Dustin Ranem, New City Times
Most coffee fiends (and mavens) with an internet connection have seen some version of the quote above, perhaps noting the irony of the pejorative reference to the sacred animal associated with coffee's origin myth -- Kaldi's goats.

I have always read this as a quote -- perhaps apocryphal -- in the voice of the great composer himself. I can imagine him requiring quite a bit of coffee in order to focus on his great works. I learned only today that the original quote refers to bowls, not cups, of coffee -- and more importantly that it is in the voice of a fictional character, a young woman named Lieschen.

She is part of a coffee cantata (or small opera) that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for friends at Café Zimmerman -- one of at least eight Leipzig coffee shops that were important to the composer.

The full libretto of Cantata BMV 221 is available in English, and various recordings are available on YouTube. My favorite is this version, which is staged in a cafe full of exquisite old coffee equipment!

The Bach Coffee Opera listicle describes the context in which Bach developed this work, and delves into the role of gender in the work itself and in broader coffee culture of the time.

Monday, September 25, 2017

These Cartographers Are Animals

Source: Margaret Crofoot et al by way of NPR
Click map to enlarge
My title is not exactly correct, but I could not resist. Skilled humans combined art and geotechnology to make the maps based on animal movements in Where the Animals Go, an award-winning collection of 50 maps published by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti. 

In her review The Science and Art of Mapping Animal Movements, public-radio journalist Barbara King describes some of the varieties of approaches taken to the maps, and the ways in which they yield results that are at once scientifically valuable and aesthetically pleasing.


The combination of art with technology is trending in education circles as "STEM to STEAM," which refers to adding Art to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM -- itself an educational fad that was made necessary by misguided reforms that reduced focus on these subjects). To which geographers back to Ptolemy say, "We were doing STEM to STEAM before it was cool!"

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tales of Popo and Itza

Photo: The Tiffany Curtain Rises, CDMX
Last Thursday would have been the 100th birthday of Amalia Hernandez, who established the legendary Ballet Folklórico de México, which my favorite librarian and I had the privilege of watching in 1989.

In my geography of Latin America class that day, I talked about the dance program, and about the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, in which we saw it. We climbed many staircases before emerging into this remarkable theater on one of its topmost balconies. We were stunned by the glass curtain, which we learned years later was made by Tiffany. And I learned just now that it was created in 1912 of a million pieces of crystal.

It depicts two of my favorite volcanoes -- Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl -- which would have been visible from the cite of the palace before the city -- and smog -- obstructed the view. The view, I told my students, was unknown to most in Mexico City, because its legendary smog has only lifted fully once in the lifetimes of its older residents, and not at all since that majority of its population was born. In 1985, I said, this brilliant clear view of the famous volcanoes emerged for just a couple of days, when an earthquake shook the city violently, killing thousands and stopping traffic for days.
Image: Inside Mexico
I learned of these volcanoes during the summer of 1989. We spent a few days each in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Guanajuato, but most of our summer was in the city of Puebla and the ancient town of Cholula on its outskirts, where we were part of a program at UDLA-Puebla, a private university known for its international programs. From that side of the mountains, Popo was on the left, and a bit closer. Sometimes it loomed over the campus, and we could watch the snows at the top advance and retreat week by week, according to the weather.

We learned how to pronounce the Aztec names, and I even spent one night in the village of Yanquitalpan, high on the flanks of the great volcano. Our campus was at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the summit more than 17,000 feet. That stay in the village was perhaps halfway between the two in elevation. We also learned the legend that is illustrated above, a sort of Aztec version of Romeo and Juliet.

Only later on Thursday did I realize that I was speaking on the anniversary of the 1985 quake -- nearly at the same moment. I learned of this later in the day, of course, when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck to the south of the city, centered in Rabosa, Puebla State -- 32 days and 6 hours after the one about which we had heard so much.
Map: US Geological Survey
The best reporting I have heard on last week's earthquake aired yesterday as part of The Takeaway on PRI. Todd Zwillich hosted Mexico City Trembles, an in-depth story that included a conversation with a Mexican diplomat. The story puts the most recent tragedy in the context of the devastating September 8, 2017 quake in Oaxaca and the 1985 earthquake.  Listeners learn in detail some of the ways in which the people of Mexico City have become expert in earthquake preparedness and recovery. Most telling: immediately after the buildings collapsed last Thursday, hundreds of people could be seen running towards each one of them.

In the following days, I began to see articles about an eruption of Popocatépetl that was triggered by the Rabosa earthquake. The stories were plausible but not convincing, so I checked the Smithsonian earthquake database. The Popocatépetl page does mention minor recent activities, but they are not extraordinary for this site, and some of them predate the Rabosa quake by several days. At this point volcanologists (an important profession in Mexico and Central America) consider them unrelated.
Photo: Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program

U.S. government scientists at USGS are the best source I know of information on earthquakes worldwide, because the global seismic network needed to monitor some earthquakes must monitor them all. Volcano monitoring requires locally-installed equipment, so the USGS volcano page is excellent, but limited to volcanoes in U.S. territories. The best global volcano resource I have found is at the Smithsonian, which is located in the United States but is privately funded by the bequest of James Smithson (who never visited the United States).

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Wrestling the First Amendment

In the "Trials of the Free Press" episode of his podcast, journalist Sam Sanders has a meta-meta discussion about the vulnerability of journalism -- and therefore of democracy itself -- to the legal maneuverings of a few disgruntled elites. Fellow NPR journalist David Folkenflik and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger join Sanders to discuss Nobody Speak: The Trials of a Free Press.

Written and directed by Knappenberger, the film starts with Hulk Hogan's legal takedown of the admittedly trashy news site Gawker. It delves deeper, however, into the strategies of those who envision a world with no free press at all -- and who might just have enough money to make it happen.


Image: IMDb

I am famous (at least in my own household) for forgetting the names of films and characters, and for simply substituting my own synonyms. I'm like a walking, pointless thesaurus in that way. So when we were looking for this film on Netflix, I first misdirected Pam to the title "Shut Up." That was not getting us anywhere, but it really is the main message of them film, as unpatriotic billionaires use their money to silence reporters. Rather, to attempt to silence reporters.

It also reminded me of the Chico Buarque song "Calice," a brilliant work or resistance during Brazil's authoritarian period. As I describe in my 2013 Creative Resistance post, the title is a pun, playing on the similarity between the Portuguese words for chalice (as in the cup of the Last Supper) and shut up (which was what journalists and artists in Brazil were being told by those in power). My 2014 Overcoming Condor post describes the journalist whose killing was part of the inspiration for Buarque, and the role of the United States in supporting the Brazilian regime in those days.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wynning the Climate Bet

Gamblers might win or lose on a given day, but the house wins in the long run. Covering bets over a long time horizon is essential, whether the bet is on a deck of cards or a rising sea.
Steve Wynn is not gambling with climate denial
WBUR journalist Jack Lepiarz describes how the Steve Wynn's team is working with environmental experts to mitigate the risk of climate-related sea-level rise as they build Wynn Boston Harbor. This is the most expensive single-phase construction project in the history of Massachusetts, so Wynn must take a very long view to ensure the viability of the structure.

In just six minutes, Lepiarz and environmental consultant Jamie Fay describe how looking back 200 years and forward 100 years have influenced the construction design. Professionals in finance, insurance, construction, planning, or military operations increasingly understand that they cannot afford foolish gambles on climate.

Waterfront locations, as Lepiarz makes clear in his reporting, are both highly desirable and increasingly risky.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Medgar, Malcolm, Martin

When author James Baldwin died in 1987, he was only 30 pages into a writing project that intended to use the murders of Medgar Evers (1963 -- when I was five weeks old), Malcom X (1965), and Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968) as a lens through which to understand the American story more broadly. His premise was that the history of the country is the history of the Negro (the term he uses consistently) within the country.

In I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck brilliantly brings Baldwin's fragments of work forward four decades, weaving together Baldwin's writings (as read by Samuel L. Jackson); video of Baldwin in various debates, lectures, and talk shows; and dozens of well-chosen clips from television and film spanning nearly a century.

The film thoroughly dispels the notion that slavery and its aftermath are something that people could "get over" if only they tried a bit harder. This film is rich food for thought.


The morning after I posted this, I found Jason Satler's essay on well-mannered white supremacy, which argues that overt racism is rejected by many of the politicians who benefit most from systemic racism in various forms.

Friday, August 25, 2017

First-Time-Ever Arctic Crossing

For many international shipments, the routes shown above are far shorter than alternatives that would pass through the Suez Canal as they circle Asia to the south. These routes have historically been quite difficult, though, being impassable in cold months and requiring massive icebreaker escorts in warmer months.

This has now changed, according to a report from CNN Money, which presents melting Arctic ice as a new opportunity presented by climate change. The Russian tanker Cristophe de Margerie has traveled from Norway to South Korea in 19 days, the first ship to make such a journey without an icebreaker in front of it. It is a sign of many more such voyages to come.

We know from the study of climate justice that the consequences of climate change accrue very unevenly -- so unevenly, in fact that people in some regions or economic sectors are actually experiencing benefits.

The problems of melting Arctic ice are many and are well documented. This story about shipping brings to mind three kinds of feedback associated with the ice loss:

1. Fuel saved by shorter transit times will reduce carbon loading and slightly slow overall warming.
2. Greater access to fossil-fuel deposits will likely add to carbon loading in much greater amounts than these savings.
3. More important than either of these, less ice means lower albedo (surface reflectance) and therefore much greater warming, regionally and globally. This feedback loop is already in effect, and accounts for the heretofore unimaginable rapid rates of ice loss.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Farming for 100 Years, Near Boston

I have visited Volante Farms in Needham, Massachusetts a couple of times; I think the first time was during one of the many explorations we make in our travels around the state with Project EarthView. Even a brief visit to the farm store reveals that this is a remarkable property.

A ten-minute discussion with Radio Boston journalists Jaime Bologna and Deborah Becker hints at just how remarkable the story of this family farm is. Their Farming for 100 Years story is rich with lessons about the geography of food, particularly the importance and challenges of producing food in a suburban region. I would elaborate on some of these connections here, but I am going to wait, since this will be the first writing assignment for my Land Protection class this fall.
Productive farmland, a dozen miles from downtown Boston.
Image: WBUR
I just saw this quote from Henry David Thoreau, whose lived only a few miles from this farm and whose writings are a big part of the course I am teaching.
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
I share it because I think it is relevant to how we think about buying food. I can always find an onion or a tomato that is "cheaper" than the same product from a place like this. But the products really are not the same, and the real cost of cheap food can be much higher than it appears.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Old-School Microdistricts

In 2010-2011, I was writing quite a lot in on this blog about the advantages that would accrue from regionalizing some services in Massachusetts -- consolidating the work of towns that is done by counties in most of the United States. 

It would simplify communication between state agencies and local workers, and increase the proportion of funding that would go directly to services. As logical as some county-level service provision would be, it is not going to happen in my lifetime, because of the "illusion of local control," as Gov. Patrick and I described it in a 2009 discussion. We used the word "illusion" because the small scale of governance allows taxpayers to make detailed decisions -- like a town-meeting vote on whether to buy new tires for a police car (I exaggerate only slightly) -- while unfavorable economies of scale very much constrain those decisions. Overhead is quite high, with thousands of people employed managing things who could be much more usefully employed doing the things. Search the word "regionalization" on this blog to see some specific example or read my case for regionalization page for a detailed explanation.
Old Stone Schoolhouse. Image: Fairhaven Office of Tourism
This all came to mind yesterday as my favorite librarian and I visited this Old Stone Schoolhouse in the Oxford Village area of Fairhaven. Our main goal was to learn more about the history and geography of the seaside town that began being our part-time home about two years. The outing was certainly successful -- in less than an hour we learned a great deal from the "schoolmaster" docent who connected this 1828 structure to many Fairhaven events, personalities and structures. He also helped us to understand the daily life of teachers and students in nineteenth-century New England towns.

It was the story of the school's construction, though, that gave us new insight into the current resistance to regionalization. When Fairhaven was incorporated in 1812, it included what is now the town of Acushnet, immediately to the north. The two towns cover just under 35 square miles and today have a combined population of less than 25,000 people. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts required that school districts be formed within towns, with each district required to provide for the education of children in that district.

Here is the amazing bit: within this small town, NINETEEN districts were created. This made some sense, in an age when every child would walk to school. But by the end of the century, reform movements would consolidate districts at the town level to reduce variations in funding and in the quality of instruction.

So the town-level administration we find today — with 250 school districts where 20 would do, but where a couple thousand had been — is regionalization enough by nineteenth-century standards. And as anybody who has been in New England very long knows, nineteenth-century standards are, well, standard in many aspects of life.

Lagniappe: Climate Change

Among the many interesting stories we heard during our brief visit to the Old Stone Schoolhouse was one about the commute of a teacher who lived in the center of town, about a mile and a half south of the school to which she was assigned. This was unusual enough that stories were handed down of her walking to school along Main Street in the warmer months -- and ice skating along the Acushnet River in the winter. I have been rowing year-round in the Acushnet River for the past five years, and although I have encountered some ice along the margins and even slabs of ice in the open water, I have never encountered ice that one would even consider skating on.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Water Mosaic

We live on a water planet, yet clean water is scarce. Even on my own university campus, some students do not have adequate access to clean water during the day -- though bottled water is for sale at a cost about 3 times that of gasoline.

Artist Serge Belo calls attention to the importance of water by coordinating the work of 100 volunteers to make a remarkable mosaic from recovered rainwater. I recommend watching the video above and then reading about their project on Viral Mirror and On Note.

Water is an important part of the work we do as educators in Project EarthView; I recently posted an article about the global scale of fresh water, in response to a question from a student at Rumney Marsh Academy in Revere.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Name That Learner

The first time I purchased a digital camera, it was with professional-development funds from my college. I made the case that the camera would help me to learn student names, because it would make it easy for me to take "mug shots" at the beginning of the semester and put the photos into a spreadsheet.

In most of my larger classes, I have announced on the first day that the next class meeting would be "picture day." When possible, I have used wall maps as my "studio" background. I have found the process of cropping and inserting the photos to be a good way to start learning names, and calling roll from the photo-spreadsheet has made me much better -- though still far from great -- at learning names throughout the semester.
"Yes, you there."

I started the spreadsheet approach when I was in my 30s, and eventually started using it in my smaller classes. Whenever I have failed to do so, I have ended the semester being unsure of at least a few names. And even with this help, I am sometimes at a loss to name the student in front of me. I learned that for a person over 50, this becomes increasingly common, even with long-time acquaintances. So I will continue to whatever help I can get.

Much of that help can be found in Maryellen Weimer's recent article, The Importance of Learning Students' Names, in which she describes a number of additional techniques that I plan to try. More importantly, she makes a convincing case for involving students more directly in the process. Networking, after all, is an important benefit of education at all levels, and it is worth spending a little bit of class time to facilitate connections.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Medicare and Small-d democracy

Seminary was where I got my questions answered, and life was where I got my answers questioned.

Bill Moyers values both halves of this couplet -- he gained a lot in seminary school, and he gained a lot by moving beyond it. He goes on to say that he knows religion is a powerful animating force in people's lives, and that he has seen both great good and great harm motivated by it.

"You can't treat grandma this way."
These remarks come near the end of a remarkable and wide-ranging conversation between the best interviewer we have -- Terry Gross -- and an accomplished journalist (with a cabinet full of Emmys) who once held Sean Spicer's job under a very different president.

The conversation begins with Moyers describing how Lyndon Johnson patiently and skillfully did his homework to bring about the passage of Medicare. The discussion then ranges across broad themes of democracy, journalism, work, and mortality -- this is 36 minutes well spent.

Actually 72 minutes, because I will probably listen to this a second time soon.


I am glad that the conversation eventually turned to Moyers seminary days. One of the first things I learned about him was that he had attended on of the six Southern Baptist Seminaries that were in place in the 1970s -- I think some of them have since closed and all of them have been taken over by ideologues who pushed out the educators. He attended Southeastern in North Carolina; my father, mother, and I all attended Midwestern in Kansas City. (Though my dad attended "for reals" and my mother and I were in a non-credit program. I think I was the only teenager ever to do so.) In those days, both seminars had a reputation for both deepening one's religious understanding and broadening one's thinking.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Bridges and Habilitation

Earlier this month, I very much enjoyed listening to this story as I prepared our morning coffee. Although I did not know the people or projects described, I did know the setting, and the story felt familiar in at least two ways.

BSU students at PLUSAA in León
First, the project described is very much like the work of the Polus Center in León, Nicaragua -- more specifically the local projects supported by its Coffeelands Trust. As in the projects described by journalist Mónica Ortiz Uribe in northern Mexico, the clinics in Nicaragua -- PLUSAA and Walking Unidos -- empower people with limb loss or other severe injuries by providing prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs. The latter are made from simple, locally available materials and are adapted to local terrain. Even more importantly, much of the work is performed by people who themselves have suffered such injuries.

I was very pleased to hear that a very similar set of projects is underway in Sonora, northwest Mexico, near my former home in Tucson, Arizona. Both the objectives and the methods are very much like the projects many  students have visited with me in León. The immediate goal in all of these projects is mobility, but the ultimate purpose is to allow people to develop independence and an ability to contribute to the well-being of their families.

Both in Mexico and in Nicaragua, the projects are driven by local individuals and partners from the United States. In both cases, support from the U.S. Federal government plays a small role. In Nicaragua, this has been in the form of grants from the State Department's Agency for International Development (US-AID), directed at ameliorating some of the harm done by the 175,000 landmines that U.S.-backed insurgents placed throughout the country in the 1980s. In the case of Sonora, Mexico, aid has come in the form of equipment donated by the U.S. Northern Command.

Image: Wikimedia, 2010 view of Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona.
Note the presence of a huge wall through the city, though short-term crossings in both directions are common for work, shopping, or even fast food.  As with most U.S.-Mexico twin cities, the population is larger on the Mexico side. In this case, it is more than a ten-fold difference, roughly 220,000 versus 20,000.
This brings me to the second way in which the radio piece was instantly familiar. It does not describe the cartoon version of the borderlands that has been created for political purposes over the past several decades. Rather, it describes a spirit of cooperation and recognition of mutual interdependence that I observed during my seven years in the Arizona/Sonora and Texas/Tamaulipas borderlands, and that is described beautifully in Border People by historian Oscar Martinez.