Monday, June 26, 2017

Second Coffee Myth: Busted

The first myth of coffee is the myth of its origin about 1500 years ago in Abyssinia, in what is now Ethiopia. A goatherd named Kaldi is said to have noticed his goats dancing with extra energy. He also noticed that they were eating the fruit of some tall shrubs, so he chewed on them, got energized, and the rest is history.
Coffee: Fruit to grounds
The rest is also geography -- the Abyssinians only got as far as mashing the fruit into something like a power bar; it was across the Red Sea in Yemen that coffee as we know it began to emerge about a century later.

The second coffee myth comes much later, in the 1970s, and it actually includes the word "second." The myth goes like this:
Myth: Coffee is the second-most actively traded commodity, after oil.
This is a myth that I have repeated online, in classes, and in public lectures. I have read it on coffee web sites and many kinds of books about the beverage. And I have heard it in almost every documentary film about coffee that I have watched.

And, it appears, it is about as likely to be true as the legend of Kaldi. Perhaps less so.

Over the years, I have intended to look up the numbers behind the claim, to make sure that they were "still" true. The possibility that the claim was never true simply did not occur to me.

And then an alum shared Jon Greenberg's PolitiFact article No, Coffee Is Not the Second-Most Traded Commodity After Oil. The article is a bit blustery and inexplicably centers on Starbucks, but it usefully cites a couple of statistics and authorities that cast doubt on the second-most ranking. One of those incorrectly says that the claim was once true, which would give me comfort, but it turns out that even this is not the case.

Fortunately, Greenberg cites one authority I know personally -- Mark Pendergrast. When I first began preparing to teach coffee classes in 2005, I chose his book Uncommon Grounds as a text. Coincidentally, a teacher who was attending a geography workshop at which I was giving a short presentation on coffee said, "My uncle has written a book about coffee." It was the book I had already chosen, and I was able to arrange for him to speak on our campus as part of the send-off for my first coffee travel course. I later took a group of students who had read his book to meet him while we were touring a roastery near his home.

I mention those meetings because they took place after the book was published, but before Pendergrast had been made aware of the error shared by so many scholars of coffee. Scholar that he is, he doggedly researched the topic, going much deeper, of course, than the PolitiFact author could go. Details of his retraction were published in a 2009 issue of Coffee & Tea Trade Journal  with the cumbersome title Coffee second only to oil? Is coffee really the second largest commodity?, which is helpfully republished on The Free Library.

Pendergrast's best theory as to the origin of the myth is that it originally referred not to global trade, but to exports from developing countries. He explains this distinction clearly, and also explains why apples-to-apples comparisons (as it were) between the 1970s and today are no longer possible.

As careful as he is in the retraction, Pendergrast is also careful to emphasize that the ranking is not so important. However it is measured, the coffee business touches tens of millions of lives directly, along with wildlife habitat and water supplies throughout the tropics. Those of us who care deeply about those people and places should never have taken the "big is important" bait.

A second edition of Uncommon Grounds includes the correction, but as we all know -- retractions never travel as widely or quickly as errors. I am making it my duty as Coffee Maven -- beginning with this post -- to set the record straight.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

If I am in my car, I am almost certainly listening to public radio. We live in a place where thoughtful stories and interviews from NPR, PRI, APR, or BBC are available on one local station or another almost all the time. Recently I heard a few minutes near the end of this conversation with Salma Hayek.

We had heard a little about Hayek's latest film, in which she is an ordinary, working person who finds herself at a small dinner party with economically powerful -- ruthless, even -- guests in the home of one of her massage/reiki clients. This is the sort of film that we would usually just put on our list for eventual release online, but in part because of the interview, I joined Pam in wanting to catch it in the theater. During travel to visit family in Maryland, we did just that.
Beatriz at Dinner
She was invited but not welcome
This film can be seen as a sort of sequel to the T.C. Boyle novel Tortilla Curtain, which treats very similar tensions between people who are physically proximate but socially distant.

It is different in a couple of key ways. Most important is that the story brings its disparate characters into even more direct -- even personal -- contact with each other. This is a story of conversation, and as the most privileged character (Doug Strutt, played with glee by John Lithgow) sometimes steers the conversation with Hayek's Beatriz toward interrogation, she is increasingly emboldened to do the same. Not used to having his actions and values questioned, the tension between the two escalates uncomfortably.

A second key difference is that although both stories involve characters on opposite sides of racial and economic divides, the economic dichotomy is a bit different. If Boyle's wealthy were "one percenters" or even "1/10 percenters," Doug and his pals represent the billionaire class and their allies. And although Beatriz clearly comes from outside the gate, she is a professional with her own business. Though modest in the context of the home where the dinner takes place, her status is clearly different from the housekeeper played by Soledad St. Hilaire.

Bechdel

Written by Michael White and directed by Miguel Arteta, Beatriz at Dinner passes the Bechdel Test, many times over. The greatest fireworks are between Beatriz and Doug, and these interactions bring out the most timely (2017) political lessons. But the most important social lessons play out in the interactions between Beatriz and homeowner Cathy (played by Bostonian Connie Britton), who sees herself as both an admirer and friend of Beatriz.

When reviewing the IMDb page for the film, I noticed an interesting Bechdel connection, which cannot have been accidental. A film passes the Bechdel test only if a conversation takes place between two female characters who have names, and if that conversation is about something other than a man. A surprising number of films do not pass this simple test. Beatriz has conversations with all of the named characters, male and female. But other than herself, only the wealthy characters have names, and only Doug Strutt has a surname. The housekeeper in this film is no different than those in any of the films to which Hayek refers in her radio interview.

Environmental Geography

This film is so richly layered with respect to social and economic geography that I almost forgot to mention two threads of the story that are germane to the title of this blog. One is the phenomenon of wealthy trophy hunters slaughtering endangered large mammals as boost to their own egos, with devastating consequences. Doug Strutt is one such "hunter" who justifies his participation in these rigged hunts -- perhaps even to himself -- by arguing that they support wildlife management. Although such models commonly work in the U.S., Beatriz is rightly quite skeptical of the kinds of "hunts" that attract the likes of her dinner companion.

The other environmental problem that Beatriz and the rest of the guests see quite differently is cancer. This is especially poignant because her connection to the hosts of the party is the healing work she did with their daughter as she suffered from cancer. As much as Cathy, the mother, admires Beatriz as a healer, she is skeptical when Beatriz speaks of environmental factors that cause the disease. In this part of the conversation, she echoes Rachel Carson, who drew connections between pesticides and health risks that many people simply found to uncomfortable to believe. At this fictional dinner party, it is as if Carson has the opportunity to bring her findings about pollution directly to a powerful culprit.

Lagniappe

Beatriz at Dinner does the viewer a favor of not resolving all of the questions it raises. It is a Hollywood film without a Hollywood resolution. It also makes good of magic realism, an important thread in much of the literature of Latin America.

Throughout the film, I thought of the irony of Hayek playing a character who is uncomfortable as a guest in a big, expensive house, even though she must own one. I wondered, in fact, if her own house was being used as the set, but from what I can tell on celebrity web sites, it is not. She does appear to own at least two houses larger than the one used in the film, and probably more than that. She is a multimillionaire married to a multibillionaire. She clearly has a Latina life that many film directors would consider implausible for a Latina character.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Writing Matters

Good writing is the best evidence of clear thinking.
Good writing is also hard work.
from Not-the-13th Grade


I wrote this aphorism myself more than 20 years ago. I had said it to a class, and then realized that it should be at the top of the writing pages I had created as part of my very first web site. My entire online life began, in fact, with this small effort to help my geography students to think more critically about their own writing.

I was reminded of this when my favorite librarian shared Dave Stuart's recent article, "Writing: The Most Underrated Twenty-First Century Skill," which she had found through one of her librarian newsletters.

I flinched momentarily at his use of the phrase "most underrated," but quickly realized he is absolutely right. Education is full of fads, and an increasingly consequential constellation of fads surrounds efforts to figure out what employers want from graduates and then to make damn sure we educators "give" it to them.

My own university is caught up in this, seeking to identify exactly which skills we provide in each class, and figuring out how to plan, validate, document and (Goddess help us) assess each such skill.

The result is less emphasis on three things we know build writing skills:
Sadly, outcome-driven fads that have worked poorly in K-12 education are now being inflicted on higher education, notwithstanding the important role of academic freedom that has been at the core of the latter heretofore. Today, university professors at all levels are being pushed to orient their courses toward narrowly defined workplace "skills," to the detriment of holistic skills in writing and -- by extension -- reasoning.

Those of us who teach at the university level already know well what outcome-based, data-driven "reforms" have done at the K-12 level. Many of our students arrive without much experience with sustained reading or with writing beyond a strictly prescribed, five-paragraph essay. Vocabularies and facility with syntax are shrinking, while a tendency toward passive learning is growing.

Nobody has expressed the value of reading for its own sake more eloquently than U.S. Representative (and civil-rights hero) John Lewis, upon receipt of the National Book Award. His admonition is part of my November 2016 post, Just Read.

Lagniappes

Readers interested in reviews of some of my favorite books can have a look at my read shelf at Goodreads.

From the Writer's Circle comes a list of ways to make writing a bit more interesting. The more we read, the more subtlety and precision our writing will have. The use of dictionaries and thesauri -- now available both in print and online -- is also essential.

Unicorn Cult

One of my proudest moments as an academic came during a panel discussion on fair trade in 2013, when the economist sitting next to me wrote "pink unicorn" in her notebook, exclaiming that she would be borrowing my metaphor for her own teaching. This was especially gratifying to me, because I see almost the entire field of economics as deluded by its fixation on free markets.

What the Free Market looks like.
I recently became aware of Chris Floyd's short, brilliant, and important 2008 article, The God That Failed that sheds important light on how damaging that fixation has become, and how so many people have been taken in by it. Writing just after the bubble burst (and coincidentally, shortly before I started blogging), Floyd explains how the simplistic pronouncements of Thatcher, Reagan, and Norquist became deeply embedded in our politics over the previous three decades, normalizing the impoverishment of public institutions.

As dire as his words were in 2008, he could not have predicted the extent to which the public has accepted and even embraced austerity, transferring trillions of dollars from the bottom 80 percent to the top 1 percent via tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization.

Lagniappe

I explain my use of the unicorn metaphor in my 2013 Return of the Pink Unicorn and 2014 Galloping Unicorns posts. Adam Smith's metaphor for the magical market, of course, is the invisible hand. See my 2012 Smashing Hand post for a Monty cartoon and links to several related, mildly risqué, comparisons.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Fifty Years of Temporary Living

Dalia & Bashir
As I have written in this space before, Sandy Tolan's novel* The Lemon Tree has been among the most powerful works I have assigned to my students. In my survey course The Developing World, I assign it to complement the traditional textbook chapter on the Middle East. I intended to assign this only once -- during the semester that it was our town and university community read, in which Mr. Tolan visited our campus. But the writing that resulted from this assignment was among the most thoughtful writing I have seen from my students, so I have continued to assign it.

The conflict over Palestine is one of the most important for U.S. foreign policy, but one that is little understood by most U.S. citizens, and understood in only the simplest terms by most of the rest. It is, of course, a conflict with a complicated geography and a complicated history, and both have implications for daily life in the West Bank and throughout the entire region. So while a few students have resisted this assignment -- because it is complex or because it challenges deeply-held assumptions -- many more have thanked me for it. The novel is beautifully written and delicately balanced.

All of this is timely during the anniversary week of the Six-Day War, which both preserved and expanded the state of Israel. NPR is marking the anniversary with a series of reports.

Two good places to start, I think, are the Encyclopedia Britannica West Bank article and Greg Myre's blog post about the efforts of 10 U.S. presidents to broker a lasting peace. His post includes a brief video in which Myre outlines the broad implications of the war for the U.S., Israel, and its neighbors.

Next, I suggest Dan Efron's report on the lack of historical understanding of the basic facts of the 1967 war; many in Israel are not aware that the settlements in the West Bank are contested. He argues that blurring of the lines is part of a deliberate effort to make the de facto settlements more difficult to reverse. Whether it is deliberate or not, his reference to weather maps is certainly correct. This image from today's official weather report gives no indication that the lands shown are anything but Israel proper.

All of this is by way of preparation for the two reports that reminded me most directly of Tolan's work. They are first-hand profiles of two men with connections in both the West Bank and the United States, one Jewish and one Palestinian.

Omar Omar was a young man studying abroad when the war took place, and though his family was in the West Bank, he was not allowed to return for many years, and instead moved to the United States. His story includes a fascinating chance encounter with a U.S. client after he did eventually return.

Conversely, Ephraim Bluth was a college student in the U.S. during the war, and decided to move to the West Bank in order to participate actively in securing Israel as a Jewish homeland.

For more background on The Lemon Tree, see the introduction and excerpt that were published on the PBS Frontline web site shortly after its publication. I also cite Tolan in my 2012 article Cool Arab Autumn and my 2017 Bilingual Street article.

For more information on the West Bank, see the West Bank occupation maps from Al-Jazeera and the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs OPT web site.

*novel: Two books that I regularly assign to students are described by their authors and publishers as novels, even though they are based on thorough research of the lives of actual people. I consider both books -- The Lemon Tree and In the Time of the Butterflies -- to be reliable sources of insight and information about their subjects, though their designation as novels does give me some slight discomfort.

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