Monday, May 31, 2010

A 26-page brownie recipe

This NPR story gently pokes fun at government regulations, specifically the regulations that govern the production of combat rations. The story put me immediately in mind, of course, of the three years I enjoyed working in the world of military contracting at the Wornick Company in McAllen, Texas. (Those who know me may find this surprising -- I found it surprising myself. But I loved the people I worked with, and found the work itself interesting and progressively more challenging.)

As producers of combat and humanitarian rations, our lives were full of acronyms (MREs, HDRs, FRHs) and our work was guided by Mil-Spec -- military specifications. In fact, when we created a commercial version of the MRE, we called it Mil-Spec.

As the NPR story implies, military specifications are distinguished in two ways -- they can be very demanding and they can be very detailed. The reputation for demanding requirements is why we applied the specs to our own commercial product, so that we could have the bragging rights. (Exception: we did not include the FRHs, because it is often illegal to ship them.)

As the story emphasizes, though, the specifications can be detailed -- to an extent that may seem unreasonable, as a 26-page spec for a brownie might seem to an outsider. As the "comments" section on the NPR story illustrates, scoffing at such complexity as examples of bureaucratic over-reach and a way to squander public money.

From my perspective, however, the private sector is just as responsible for the Byzantine regulations as is anybody in the Pentagon. Why? Because private contractors -- even the honest ones such as Wornick -- will provide what is required: nothing more, nothing less. And contractors that fail to win contracts will file lawsuits. Because those lawsuits will not be defensible unless bidding is based on very specific contract requirements, the Pentagon provides extreme -- excruciating, even -- levels of detail about what it wants. Even for something as simple as a brownie, the contract might be awarded on the basis of a price difference of two-tenths of a cent per brownie. In this context, a common-sense understanding of a brownie plays no role.

(Incidentally, those acronyms mean Meal, Ready to Eat; Humanitarian Daily Ration; and Flameless Ration Heater.)

Lessons from Haiti

 Coordinates is an online magazine, based in New Delhi, that covers geopositioning and other geotechnologies, with the intention of making information about developments in these fields more accessible to end users. 

The May 2010 issue includes Lessons from Haiti, an article that describes how the UN-Spider program -- established for just such emergencies in 2006 -- worked in Haiti, how its operation had to be modified, and what lessons were learned.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Location, Location, Location ... and taxes

Nothing is certain, Benjamin Franklin said, except death and taxes. Actually, a third thing is certain, especially in the days following Ronald Reagan's reign of error: worrying and complaining about taxes more than death itself.

President Reagan created an atmosphere of disdain for government employees, even though he was a government employee for much of his life. In fact, even as he convinced many Americans that government employees (himself presumably excepted) were lazy, inefficient, and unproductive, he increased the federal work force by 6.2 percent (mostly in the executive branch) between 1981 and 1989. At the same time, he increased revenues, spending, deficits, and debts. His most important legacy, however, is the mistrust of government and government workers -- even on the part of some government officials and those who rely on the government for essential services (which is all of us, in one form or another). He also helped to make millionaires of anti-government demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (who can hardly be called productive members of society themselves.)

All of this is important background for understanding a much more local phenomenon: the repeated failure of my adopted hometown -- Bridgewater, Massachusetts -- to provide for its basic needs.

In Massachusetts, opponents of taxation passed a law -- Proposition 2-1/2 -- that requires a majority vote for any town to raise its property taxes by more than 2.5 percent. This seems a reasonable stipulation -- after all, taxation should be tied to representation. We had had a little dust-up about that here 235 years ago.

In combination with the anti-government mentality that has grown since the 1980s, however, this has proved a paralyzing requirement, especially since an increase of several percentage points might be needed after several years of zero-percent growth in town funding. The cost of nearly all goods and services increases with time, but town government is expected to deliver vital services on the same amount of income, year after year.

So, the absentee landlords in town -- even the former police chief -- already have their anti-override signs on their apartment buildings (as shown above). So "free speech" is tied more closely to property ownership than it is to residency or citizenship. Moreover, after more than a decade of pushing Bridgewater taxes -- and services -- to the bottom, these guys want to keep squeezing. No senior center, no library, warehouses in place of schools, and dramatically fewer cops and firefighters.

Many of those who oppose consistently oppose taxes at the local level insist that more money should come from the state level, particularly the local college (full disclosure: I work there) and the prison. Each of these provides essential services to the Commonwealth (including local residents) while also providing employment at all levels to a couple thousand area residents, many hundreds of whom live in town. Each also makes direct payments in lieu of taxes, as well as many indirect contributions to the well-being of the town.

There is some legitimate resistance, perhaps, from seniors on fixed incomes. Property taxes certainly are regressive compared to current income, but they are not regressive in comparison to wealth, as measured by home value. Seniors typically have property that is worth 10 to 100 times what they paid for it, and property tax is both an investment in that value and a recognition that the value is maintained, in large part, by government services. A responsibly structured reverse mortgage would allow them to invest in the community infrastructure that maintains the property values.

In my town, we are spend a very modest amount -- just over one percent the value of each property -- to protect and enhance the property value. Since people have resisted making those investments, property values have crashed. We entered the decline in the housing market sooner than other towns, and if we do not change things, we will return to a healthy housing market more slowly than others. As I always remind people -- our town lost library certification before the recession, because even in a healthy economy, we did not vote to invest in our community.

Statewide reforms could help. Protections for low-income seniors exist, but they are minimal. I would like to see a cap, perhaps implemented through the state tax return. Seniors earning below a certain threshold income could get tax credits that would offset some of the post-retirement increases in their taxes. It might also be possible to defer some part of the tax bill for seniors until the sale of a primary residence, by the owner or by his or her estate.

Another reform, which I have proposed as part of a statewide task force on budget priorities, would be to regionalize certain town services. New Englanders often react viscerally to this suggestion, because they wish to maintain "local control" over services. This control is an illusion, however, if the services are constantly under stress from tax resistance. For many kinds of services, combining departments with neighboring towns -- or even operating them at the county level -- would greatly reduce overhead while maintaining most or all current points of service, and generally improving the quality of those services. Each town should have a library, some schools, a police station, and a fire station. But each town does not need a library system, a school system, a police department, and a fire department.

I will post more detail about the regionalization proposal separately. Even without it, however, town services are a good investment -- both in the quality of our community and in the value of our properties.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Routes to Your Roots

My favorite librarian Pamela encountered a lot of genealogy enthusiasts when she worked at the McAllen Memorial Library in the 1990s, just prior to the advent of internet-based research. She brought home stories of the dedicated -- obsessed might be a better word -- retirees who toiled endlessly in research into their family origins. Pam wryly observed that one "illegitimate" birth could wreck the whole enterprise, but I countered that whatever relationships people think exist are the ones that count for most purposes. The exception, of course, would be genetic traits and diseases, which do not necessarily follow recognized parentages.

I am fortunate that my own great grandmother did this kind of research, so that I know a fair bit about my family's history, dating back to the first AWOL Scottish sailor landing in Boston in 1734, down through Maine pioneer and bear wrestler Ebenezer Kezar.

And that is exactly how many of us think about genealogy -- it is the study of family history. As William A. Davis makes clear in the Boston Globe article Tracing your roots can follow the Cabot Trail, however, genealogy research is also geographic research. After all, each ancestor was both of a time and of a place. The article describes the terrific work of the Nova Scotia tourism officials, who have created a beautiful geographic interface specifically for genealogy tourists.

The image below, for example, shows incidents of "Buchanan" -- which could represent my distant Scottish relatives -- in orange circles, graduated according to the number of Buchanans in historic record at each locality. The blue icons are links to archives I could actually visit to search records. Convenient menus then link directly to hotels and other services, and since the entire site is driven by Google Maps, it is easy to calculate driving routes -- including ferries -- from home. This is a wonderful piece of applied geography!

The "Cabot Trail" in  the article's title was not familiar to me; it is a 300-mile loop drive in Cape Breton that is considered one of the world's most scenic road trips, according to an article in National Geographic's Drives of a Lifetime series.

I have not yet been to Nova Scotia, though my friend Tom is always encouraging me to do so. When I go, I'll be on the lookout for long-lost cousins!

Wild Fire Anniversary

On this date in 1964 (two days before the birth of my favorite librarian), a fire raged across Miles Standish State Forest in Plymouth County. (This is near where we live now, but Pam was born at quite a safe distance in Baltimore).

Throughout the United States in the twentieth century, total fire suppression was the main approach to managing forests. The result in many areas was an over-accumulation of fuel on the surface, and a forest landscape that was remarkably homogeneous with respect to burning history. This situation facilitated both the vertical and the horizontal spread of fire that would be much greater than what would occur in natural conditions. That is, fuel on the surface would allow ecologically useful ground fires to spread upward into destructive crown fires. Moreover, the lateral spread of the fire would not be checked as it encountered recent burns, because there were no recent burns.

This situation first became widely understood in the United States during the 1988 Yellowstone fire. I had the good fortune of taking a landscape ecology course the following year, with a biologist/geographer who helped me make sense of the problem.

The Myles Standish article from Mass Moments explains how the 1964 fire was made possible by fire suppression and also explains some of the particular features that made this fire unique. It also highlights the problem of the wildland-urban interface, which is most commonly associated with the exurban areas of Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other Western cities, but no less relevant in the sandy forest areas of southeastern Massachusetts.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Damage lives on from 1969 Cape oil spill

Although BP promised to pay all "reasonable" costs of its 2010 spill, an Alaska Senator is acting to absolve the company of all costs beyond the first $75,000,000. Since the costs are already over $600,000,000 and the spill is ongoing, this could add up to real money.

Even if the gusher were to be capped tomorrow -- which nobody is even suggesting -- the damage would continue for years, if not decades. As the Boston Globe recently reported, damage is still evident from a spill that occurred on the southwest coast of Cape Cod in 1969!

Previously, I posted some maps from NOAA and the response team. The Perry-Castañeda Map Collection at the University of Texas provides a wider array of map sources, including Louisiana state government, which is hosting interactive trajectory maps. By the way, the  Perry-Castañeda librarians can always be relied upon for links to maps related to current events.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Minnesota Fishing Season

I heard two very interesting stories about Minnesota geography -- environmental and political -- during the week following our celebration of Minnesota Day. The stories ran on NPR's All Things Considered two days after the anniversary of Minnesota statehood (which they did not mention) and two days before the opening of fishing season, which apparently is much more important to many Minnesotans. In "Biggest in Decades," former fishing guide John Wetrosky explains the connections among the pace of spring warming and the quantity and spatial clustering of walleye bass and trout.

In "Battle over Fishing," Tom Roberston reports on a controversy between the state of Minnesota and Native Americans of the Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe, some of whom plan to fish a day ahead of the season opener. On one level, this is a story about the sovereignty of Native American nations over natural resources and the degree to which this is accepted by non-native Minnesotans. 

On another level, however, the second story illustrates another, broadly applicable lesson about land rights. Although we tend to think of property rights as simple and complete, they are far from it. The rights to land are multiple, and they do not all transfer with deeds and titles. For example, in Texas, almost nobody owns the mineral rights under their houses, farms, or businesses; those rights were separated long ago. Similarly, no private land owner controls the right to fly over his or her property; those rights were separated by the courts in the early days of aviation. Similarly, some Ojibwe are making the claim that the treaty in which they surrendered land to Minnesota did not transfer the fishing rights to the state. Therefore, they claim, the right to fish when and where they want is retained by the Ojibwe, and some of them intended to exercise that right by fishing a day early.

The controversy is described in more detail -- with the maps shown above -- in "Minnesota Chippewa Rally for Rights" by Chris Niskanen of Pioneer Press in Minnesota. Read the "comments" section on the newspaper web site to see a wide range of opinion regarding the validity and interpretation of such treaties.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mt. St. Helen's Turns 30

Thirty years ago this week, Mt. St. Helen's blew its top -- certainly the most important eruption in the United States in my lifetime. We enjoyed a visit there in the early nineties, and I can highly recommend the US Forest Service interpretive center there, as well as the experience of seeing the landscape change that is still quite remarkable.

Mt. St. Helen' is featured in the May 2010 National Geographic, from which I learned that nearby Spirit Lake still has at least 200 acres of tree trunks floating in it. In the image below, they are covered with snow. If you click the link below in order to zoom in on the lake, you may see something truly phenomenal: all of those floating trees move from one side of the lake to the other with prevailing winds.

View Larger Map

My wife Pamela remembered to play the Billy Jonas song to commemorate the occasion. It is accompanies the Mt. St. Helen's slideshow below. Sadly, there is no video of Pam's interpretive dance.

Tea Horse Road

For over a thousand years, tea was carried from China to Tibet in exchange for Tibet's prized horses. Porters would follow part of the mountainous route in sandals, carrying more than their own weight in tea.

National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins followed what remains of this ancient route -- part of it with his wife, mountaineer Sue Ibarra -- and in the process learned a lot about the geography of Tibet and Sichuan, as well as the geography of tea. The online version of "The Forgotten Road" includes all of the photographs by Michael Yamashita that accompanied the May 2010 article, and a few extras. Inexplicably, it does not include the excellent map of Tibet and northwest China that appear in the print version.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Right Down the Street

My interest in the geography of coffee began about a decade ago, and was focused -- as it should be -- on the farmers who grow it, and the economic and environmental conditions in which it is grown. Eventually, though, my interest expanded to include coffee shops, particularly to independent coffee shops that compete in the shadows of the big chain outlets.

I know exactly where I was when this new interest began to emerge in 2006: Country Kitchen Donuts in Walpole, Massachusetts. I sat in the place for close to an hour as Pam was meeting with students at nearby Norfolk Aggie. The coffee was quite decent -- not specialty or fair trade, but better than most. After a while, I realized that the place had quite a loyal following. A bunch of guys chatting in a nearby booth seemed right at home, and commuters lined up to the door to get coffee, donuts, and little rectangular muffins. Without a drive-through and with a DD right next door, this place was holding its own.

At that moment, I conceived of an assignment that is now standard in my coffee seminar -- students do a bit of field research by visiting independent coffee shops. They report on the experience, the atmosphere, the customers, the coffee, and the proximity to competing national chains. Invariably, any coffee shop that is surviving in Massachusetts is doing so in direct competition with DD, which is very thick on the ground, and perhaps also with Starbucks. Reflecting on what leads to such successes is a really good part of this assignment. In 2010, I created a Yelp account for students in the class, so that the whole world (including me!) can find their reviews easily, and benefit from their insights.

So, now I can have a lot of reasons to love a coffee shop -- a commitment to socially and environmentally friendly coffee sourcing, excellent coffee preparation, decent treatment of customers and employees, decor, and friend service are among them. (Dunkin Donuts -- aka Coffee Hell -- is nearly perfect in missing on ALL counts, by the way.) Of course, I love a shop best that makes a strong effort on all of these fronts. Many of those gems can be found among my own Yelp reviews -- which include only shops that offer at least some fair trade or organic coffee.

All of this was in the back of my mind when my favorite librarian read the following passage to me:

"Omaha  has been able to absorb influences both cosmopolitan and homogenizing wihtout losing its essence. Omaha is still Omaha, perhaps more than ever.... When Starbucks came to Omaha just six years ago [ca. 2003], opening its first store, in typically predatory fashion, a few doors down from a locally owned coffeehouse called the Village Grinder, patronage of the latter increased."

It is from the article "Nebraska" by film director Alexander Payne (of Sideways fame), in a book entitled State by State, which Pam and I are reading as part of the Celebrating the States blog project. Loving a good story about underdog local businesses, I decided to look up the shop. Starbucks did, indeed, open a store on the same side of the same street, less than 500 feet away.


I could not find a web site for the shop, but it has a loyal following on Facebook. (Someone should review it on Yelp!) From the postings and photos, it seems that creativity and spontaneity are key elements of this cafe's success.

Payne's comments and the experience of the Village Grinder notwithstanding, Starbucks seems to have taken hold in Omaha -- each red dot on the map below represents a site. I'm not sure whether this map has kept up with the 2008 closing of 600 Starbucks shops nationwide, seven of which were in Nebraska, two of these in Omaha.


I'm happy that the Village Grinder seems to be thriving -- it must be a good shop. I cannot help but hope that in addition to serving its customers well, it is treating the farmers and the land fairly as well. For this reason, I posted a question about the coffee itself on the Village Grinder's Facebook Wall, and it disappeared. I hope that was a Facebook failure, rather than a reluctance to discuss the coffee. I tried a different approach, and will amend this post when I find out more.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Perfect vacation for a Latin Americanist foodie

This looks like a working vacation I could really enjoy! I use the word "working" only because I'm sure I would learn a lot of cultural geography visiting Chef Ana Garcia's La Villa Bonita culinary resort in Tepoztlan, Morelos. It is south of Mexico City, just a bit to the west of Puebla, where I spent a wonderful summer with my sweetheart and a group of students in 1989.

I am particularly fascinated with the idea of an entire week devoted to Como Agua para Chocolate. When we lived in Tucson, Pam took a class at our church, in which she learned how to make some of the dishes from the book/movie. We've tried them, and I can tell you that quail (or chicken) in rose petal sauce does indeed foster romance!

The skull candies shown on Chef Garcia's web site are the most beautiful example I've seen of something that I've grown to love about Mexico -- the playfully reverent references to the Dead, particularly during Dia de los Muertos. Of course, that is one of the other special culinary weeks at La Villa Bonita!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cancer and the Environment

On Point Radio covers a new report that makes documents what should be obvious: some cancers are attributable to chemicals in the environment. Tom Ashbrook speaks with Sandra Steingraber, whose book is the basis of the new documentary Living Downstream. She is a cancer survivor who became an ecologist in order to work "upstream" toward the causes of her disease. The film's trailer (below) shows why Steingraber has been compared to Rachel Carson. She argues for an environmental rights movement -- an approach far preferable to the condescension and victim-blaming that too often is associated with discussions of cancer.

The program participants evidence for the relative importance of environmental versus other factors, as well as the social, economic, and political factors that tend to minimize discussion of the environment and cancer.

One factor, of course, is the use of chemicals in pursuit of unnaturally green lawns. Here in Massachusetts, the Silent Spring Institute has been using geographic and epidemiological tools to study the connections between cancer and chemical exposures.

Modern Geotechnology Maps Ancient Civilization

Thanks to my friend Frank for showing me this amazing story about the application of geotechnologies to research in anthropology. As reported in the New York Times, University of Central Florida researchers Arlen and Diane Chase have used low-level, high-resolution remote sensing to map a Mayan village in Belize. By combining mapping technology with their own extensive field work, they were able to verify that the ancient city of Caracol was, indeed, as large and complex as they had previously postulated.

This work is important, not only from an intellectual point of view, but from a human-rights perspective. The Spanish Conquest killed 90 percent of the Maya of (what is now) southern Mexico and northern Central America, and setting the stage for centuries of abusive treatment. In some sense, the complexity of what came before should not  influence how the devastation is viewed, but in another sense, it does seem to show just how profound was the loss.

These days, the Maya are best known for their elaborate calendars, because of their role in the movie 2012 (which I confess I have not yet seen). The Mayan Timeline outlines the complex changes in Mayan civilizations over the centuries prior to and since the Conquest. It also helps to locate the Mayans in comparison to other indigenous civilizations that were or are found in Middle America.

Mayan civilization can still be found in the region, in varying forms and degrees. The most notable modern Mayan is probably the author and Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, whose helped end the brutal civil war in Guatemala. Her lesser-known achievements include helping to bring Dean Cycon into the coffee business -- read his book Javatrekker to learn more about that connection and about the lives of some contemporary Mayans.

Scrappy Coffee Lover

A coffee obsession can start in a number of manners, and can end up anywhere. Mine started with an interest in the farmer, and grew into bean-to-cup-to-media-to-corner-cafe fascination that I call geography of coffee.

For Anne Marie Gross, it started with family and late nights in an Italian restaurant, and grew to a love of the beverage in many forms. She created a scrap book that she calls Coffee Romance.

coffee scrapbook mini album

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Radio ramblings

Public radio is like a free university that you can have with you in your kitchen, car, or wherever you go. Even better, the stories are archived. For the final exam in my class Geography of Environmental Problems, I asked students to listen to a few stories related to environmental problems we had discussed, and to write about how the radio pieces relate to what we had covered in the class. Because my students are great at finding interesting things, I am posting some of the links to the stories they found, without commentary and in no particular order. I hope my blog followers will find these as interesting as my students and I did.

Incidentally, the findings are not limited to National Public Radio -- students were also invited to search Pacifica and Public Radio International. In some cases, the same program addresses a similar topic several times -- such as Cape Wind on Science Friday -- so that listeners can hear the discussion in considerable depth and from a wide variety of perspectives, while seeing how some aspects of the story change over time.

Global Warming Heat Wave? January Temps Hit Record Highs Across Northeast; Democracy Now! January 8, 2010.,segment-page/segment_id,60/

Cash for Climate; Living on Earth. April 9, 2010.

Cape Wind Project Moves Forward; Science Friday. April 30th, 2010.

Earth Day and the Environment Program: Making Science Radio Active Science Friday
Date Aired: Friday, April 16th, 2010         

Weathercasters and Climate Change Program: Making Science Radio Active Science Friday

Date: Friday, April 9th, 2010

·        NPR: On Science – “Neanderthals and Soaping Up For Your Mental Health” (There was a small piece on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.) Friday, May 7, 2010<>
·        NPR: Science Friday – “Fixing Oil Rig Blowout No Easy Task”. Friday, May 7, 2010 <>
·        Radio Boston 05 03 10 Boston Water Crisis. Monday, May 3, 2010.      <>

Wind Power Program: Making Science Radio Active Science Friday
Date: Friday, April 9th, 2010

The Green Talk Network. Moir’s Environmental Dialogues: Ocean River Shields of Achilles.           “Global Oceans in Crisis, Deep Descents in Trouble Ecosystems.”   April 14, 2010.

National Public Radio. Science Friday with Ira Flatow. “Cave Science.”    March 12, 2010.

Living on Earth. “Climate Action, Climate At Home and Abroad.”   April 23, 2010.

Get This: Warming Planet Can Mean More Snow” by Christopher Joyce
“TV Weathercasters Skeptical Of Climate Science” by Ira Flatow (
“Can Climate Change Explain Odd Weather?” by Ira Flatow
     Date aired: April 23, 2010.

BP Will Pay for Gulf Oil Spill Disaster, CEO Says / NPR Morning Edition Date: May 3, 2010

Environmentalist: Spill Will Disrupt Wildlife / NPR Morning Edition Date: April 30, 2010

Oil Spill Clouds Support for Offshore Drilling / Living on Earth Date: May 1, 2010 (WGBH)

October 1, 2007 on All Things Considered
February 15, 2010 on All Things Considered
September 3, 2009 on All Things Considered
April 27, 2006 on All Things Considered

Brand, Brand, Madeleine. "Public Works Endanger Japan's Environment." NPR Radio. 9 Oct. 2007. Http://

Joyce, Christopher. "Offshore Drilling Loses Support After Gulf Oil Spill." NPR Radio. 4 May 2010.  <>.

Telonidis, Taki. "College Class on Environment Redefines Field Trip." NPR Radio. 6 Nov. 2006. <>.

“Protecting the Global Food Chain” Aired On Point radio show with Tom Ashbrook on March 8, 2010.
“Confidence in Climate Science Eroding Over Errors” Aired on All Things Considered on NPR Radio February 22, 2010 with Christeropher Joyce.
“Food & Climate: A Complicated but Optimistic View” Aired on Morning Edition on NPR Radio October 30, 2007 by Dan Charles.

Predicted Impact From Antarctic Ice Melt Lessened by Richard Harris, Morning Edition. May 15, 2009.
Dam Revives Aral Sea and Nearby Communities by David Stern, Morning Edition. October 1, 2007.
Using Trees To Curb Climate Change Not So Simple by Christopher Joyce, Morning Edition. October 23, 2009.

Manure, Fertilizer Part of Chesapeake's Problem (Part 1) by Elizabeth Shogren
All Things Considered 
December 23, 2009

Byproducts of Urban Life Smother Chesapeake Bay (Part 2) by Elizabeth Shogren
All Things Considered 
December 23, 2009

Greek Island of Crete Suffers Intense Heat, Drought by Joseph Shapiro
Morning Edition 
August 13, 2007

Iceland Seeks to Restore Soils, Forests by Richard Harris
Weekend Edition Saturday 
December 22, 2007

Friday, May 07, 2010

More Gulf of Mexico Updates

In the case of the BP-Transocean-Haliburton oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the perpetrators and regulators are cooperating in the provision of information. Independent sources should be consulted for analysis, but the cooperative site does seem to be a reliable source of basic information about where the oil is, where it is heading, and the details of the operations and damage.

For example, the map below is a detail from a NOAA-generated prediction of the extent of the plumes expected by Sunday, May 9. See the full map and legend on the US Coast Guard website.

Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo just passed -- read about our family's commemoration at Celebrating the States. And yes, we know that Mexico is not a state. In fact, Mexico is itself known as the United States of Mexico.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Coffee and Oil

(Image from Inetours)

The BP oil gusher will have a lot of negative effects for the people, fisheries, and environment of the Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana, which seems destined for suffering these days (see my recent Louisiana guest blog on Celebrating the States).

The economic impact will be great, and it will not be entirely absorbed by British Petroleum -- the oil industry made sure that its representatives in Congress put caps on its liability after the Exxon-Valdez spill.

In addition to the direct impacts on the shoreline, the interuption of shipping into and out of the Port of New Orleans will affect the availability and price of many products and commodities, tourism throughout the Gul that relies on cruise lines, and perhaps employment in exporting sectors.

More coffee reaches the U.S. through New Orleans than through any other port, and of course the 2,000 ships calling on the port each year bring -- and take -- many other vital commodities. So far, the port remains open at least through May 6, but predictions have not yet been made beyond that time.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Gulf of Mexico updates

The Joint Response Centre provides constant updates on the BP disaster, including this, the latest map (click to enlarge):
A student recently asked a good question, which is whether this would threaten tourism in Mexico. Based on typical currents in the Gulf, it appears very unlikely -- all of the likely motion is toward the coasts of Louisiana and neighboring states to the east. Here is a typical pattern for April-June:

Death by PowerPoint

As I tell my students, colleagues, and anyone who will listen. PowerPoint -- especially when used as intended -- can be the death of useful communication. I learned this -- slowly, I must admit, as I was a real pro at PowerPoint as intended -- from Edward Tufte. I attended a workshop, later got his PowerPoint essay, and now use that as a text in my speaking-intensive classes. Some of the best conversations I have had with students have revolved around his critique, the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. (At $7 postpaid, this is the best value I know in continuing education and self-improvement for professional people. Pay $7, spend one evening reading it, be a better communicator, and pass it along.)

Elisabeth Bumiller's makes the case even more persuasively in her NY Times article, We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint. Bad PowerPoints can kill communication. And in a war zone, this cannot be a good thing. Thanks to my friend Brendan for bringing this to my attention. The important thing to notice in the article is that the convoluted diagram shown above, though interesting, is not cited as the main problem.

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